Acknowledging the benefits of anxiety at The Center for Growth: Everyone is wired to experience anxiety, unfortunately some people experience a more exaggerated state of anxiety than intended. Rather than always focusing on how to get rid of worry, this article will employ techniques around acknowledging the benefits of anxiety; in order to cultivate a compassionate relationship with your anxiety rather than a judgmental or rigid approach. Though it may feel unnatural to do so, acknowledging the benefits of anxiety can give you the psychological flexibility beneficial to creating lasting change.
Why Do We Have Anxiety?
Often, at the core of your anxiety is a desire to keep you safe. Your instincts are kicking in to protect you and keep you alive. Thus it makes sense that your body and brain are sensitive to signs of danger. The stress response state is meant to only be activated in times of duress, typically such as life-threatening events. When you are in survival mode, you will feel the effects in your body via your digestive system, increase in adrenaline, increased heart rate, sweatiness, and several other symptoms of your sympathetic nervous system. These are metabolically intense states for the body, therefore these episodes are supposed to be short in duration and infrequent. Unfortunately, modern life tends to activate this anxiety response more often than intended.
When Anxiety Goes Awry
Anxiety is one of the most commonly diagnosed mood disorders. If you have anxiety, your sense of danger is a little too good. Some people describe it as an “overactive alarm system” that can’t be shut off. It is attempting to keep you alive and safe in situations that are misconstrued by your nervous system as threats, for example missing a train or being late to work.
On the other hand, having some anxiety around situations like your finances or taking a test can be beneficial because it motivates you to take actions to prepare for those events. Without an adaptive level of anxiety, you likely will not have the motivation to do things like save money or study in order to prepare. However, you can experience the same physiological reactions to less significant events as you do in more dire situations. Your anxiety response or “overactive alarm system” does not distinguish between the two.
What is the Impact of This Overactive Alarm System?
Having an overactive alarm system makes it difficult to engage in your values when you feel paralyzed by fear. Further, having an overactive alarm system will likely cause significant stress, impacting your mental and emotional health, how you are able to complete tasks, and your ability to be present in relationships and other valued activities.
Anxiety gets a bad reputation, but it comes from a good place. Another perspective is looking at anxiety in a more balanced way, rather than only focusing on the bad parts. Developing a compassionate relationship with your anxiety may allow you to create mental flexibility that will allow you to take a more calm, mindful approach in order to take appropriate action toward your values. For example, instead of berating yourself or trying to get rid of your anxiety before a musical performance, you could acknowledge that your anxiety is doing its job by keeping you focused and on task so you can perform well.
When to NOT Acknowledge the Good in your Anxiety (Disclaimer)
It is important to note that this intervention is best for people when they are not actively in a state of major anxiety or panic, ie, when your overactive alarm system is sounding, as it can feel invalidating to “look at the bright side.” It can feel like toxic positivity to only focus on the “good things.” Like all interventions, some may be more appropriate than others at different times.
What Gains have You Gotten?
You can acknowledge the positives of your anxiety by thinking about what your anxiety has led you to do that feels driven by your values. For example, has your anxiety about having money in the future led you to become well-versed on different types of investments? Has it allowed you to open a savings account and contribute each time you get paid? How has your anxiety created habits and actions in you that prepare you well for your future?
Another example is if you are anxious about your car breaking down, are you more likely to make sure the oil gets checked regularly? Has that anxiety led you to be more responsible for your car maintenance, knowing the right parts to use and what to do when your car breaks down? Or, are you worried about raising your child “correctly”? Has this led you to do hours of research into the best schools or daycares in the area, making you knowledgeable about many different options for schools? What strengths has your anxiety built into your life?
What Does Your Anxiety Say About Your Values?
Additionally, you can think about why you might feel anxious about a given situation. For instance, does it tap into one of your values? In the example of feeling anxiety around your financial situation, are you feeling anxious because you value providing security for yourself and your family? If you are concerned about your car maintenance, this might point toward your value of attentiveness and care for your belongings. Identifying when your anxiety is promoting your values is another way of creating a compassionate relationship with it.
Identifying Anxiety and Being “Kind” to Them
List the common areas that anxiety shows up. For example, do you tend to be anxious about your relationship, your parenting techniques, upcoming performances at work or in extracurricular spaces? After you have completed your list, next identify how anxiety is motivating you to be successful in that moment; how it is providing global gains, and what values it is promoting. For example, you are getting anxious about completing and presenting a project to your boss. Anxiety in that moment is helping you stay on task. In general, work anxiety has increased your knowledge base about different presentation softwares, and it is promoting your strongly-held value of competency. After you have completed identifying the different ways anxiety can be viewed through a more compassionate lens, next time you start to feel bad about your anxiety, you can start substituting those thoughts with these more compassionate thoughts.
For example, when you start to feel your anxiety spike about your presentation, you could say “Hi anxiety. You are making me nervous about my upcoming work presentation, and I know you just want to make sure I stay on task and complete this project so my boss knows I am committed to my work. Thank you, anxiety. I have put in the time for preparation, so now we can breathe.”
Recognizing how your anxiety is motivating you to be successful, increasing your global gains and promoting your values contributes to developing a more compassionate relationship with your anxiety. This is helpful because it allows you to be more mentally flexible and calm, which will allow you to create lasting change as you work toward challenging your anxiety.
Doing this work can be challenging, and you might benefit from working with a Therapist to manage your anxiety. If you would like to work with a Therapist, call 215-922-5683 Ext. 100 to schedule with a Clinician. We offer services in Philadelphia, PA, Ocean City, NJ, Richmond, VA, and Santa Fe, NM. We also offer telehealth in Georgia and Florida.