For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from anxiety. As a child, I was constantly bullied—for silly issues like my love of classical music and my “big” nose. While I now look back and realize I shouldn’t have let the words of others hurt me, they did. Due to my anxiety as a child, I picked up the bad habit of scratching myself as a way of comforting myself. While I still suffer from anxiety and have scars that cover my entire body as a reminder, I realize something very important—my anxiety makes me who I am.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States, with over 40 million people affected according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness. That’s roughly 19.1% of the population. So, with so many people affected by anxiety, how can they too, use their anxiety as a positive?
There have been numerous studies set out to show that anxiety can actually be a good thing. An article that recently appeared in The New York Times talked about the upside of anxiety, and even going as far back as the 1900s, there have been studies to show that anxiety can be good. In 1908, The Yerkes Dodson Law was developed by two researchers that demonstrated an empirical relationship between pressure and performance. Dr. Michele Goldman, a psychologist and the Hope for Depression Research Foundation Media Advisor, explained that this law implies that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal but only up until a certain point. This means there is a “healthy” level of anxiety that can increase performance or given tasks.
There have been studies over the years to examine this law in various settings, with human subjects, in the hopes of either supporting or disproving this law. Most recently, the research is deciphering between “healthy” levels of anxiety and work-related stress, as the context of the world is changing and stress levels are seemingly higher than in the past. What does this mean, exactly? It means that until disproven, this law suggests that certain levels of anxiety are motivating and actually lead to enhanced performance.
Seeing My Anxiety as an Advantage
While I have always been a very nervous and overly sensitive person, I feel that my anxiety has given me an advantage. It has made me stronger and more aware of my own emotions.
Dr. Goldman agreed that we can absolutely use our anxiety to our advantage. “Anxiety can actually be very motivating,” said Dr. Goldman. “It is a charged emotion, one that usually feels very activated and energized. Use this to your advantage! Whether you’re preparing for a presentation at work, have a test that you need to study for, or are performing at an event, some degree of anxiety leads to increased motivation. Anxiety can be the push we need to study, review our presentation, etc.”
It [anxiety] is a charged emotion, one that usually feels very activated and energized. Use this to your advantage!
Anxiety has absolutely been the push I’ve needed. I am happily married and have a beautiful 3-year-old daughter. I am also a full-time stay-at-home parent and full-time writer. I still have anxiety—and to be honest, my anxiety has only worsened with the last two pandemic years. But my work actually thrived during the pandemic. I managed to find ways to confront my anxiety while stuck at home constantly worrying about everything going on in the world—all while working, running the household, and taking care of an overly active toddler. It wasn’t easy, but I managed.
Sometimes, as strange as this may sound, I feel anxiety can be the push and shove I need to see that I am in fact capable of challenges. I am stronger than I realize, and my anxiety has proven that. Even through years of struggling with anxiety, at the age of 24, I moved 5,000 miles away from my hometown of New York City to Italy where I did not know anyone or speak the language, at first. In the years that followed, I also hit some “adult” milestones like purchasing a home, getting married, and having a child. My anxiety has not held me back.
When Anxiety Isn’t Healthy
Of course, it is very important to acknowledge that anxiety can sometimes become very unhealthy. Excessive worry or fear can be dangerous when it begins to affect an individual so much, to the point that they can’t focus on reality or think clearly. Under these circumstances, someone with anxiety can start to experience physical symptoms such as a fast heartbeat, headaches, dizziness, etc. When someone becomes too anxious that they no longer find comfort in activities that they once loved or are feeling depressed, it may be time to consider treatment.
How to Harness Your Anxiety
My anxiety has always been there, and I don’t think it will ever go away. But that’s OK, because my anxiety will not limit me. We need to be more open about embracing the good and the not-so-good parts of us, and more importantly, trying to find the good in the bad.
It’s all about trying to harness your anxiety and work with it, not against it. Dr. Goldman believes that if we learn how to balance our anxiety, it can lead to careful decision-making and a lack of impulsive decisions. “Anxiety usually pairs with increased problem-solving skills. With anxiety, we often think about a variety of different outcomes and can therefore make cautious, thoughtful choices about how to proceed. This can be helpful within relationships, work settings, in leadership roles, and more.”
If you think about it, nobody really ever accomplishes anything important without considerable anxiety first. I mean, if you are preparing for an important job interview or an exam—your anxiety is proof that you are putting thought into what the outcome of a particular situation is and giving it importance. Right? I realize, of course, that is not always the case for anxiety, but let’s try to use anxiety to help us more.
Dr. Goldman says it might be helpful to “talk” to your anxiety to really understand it. What is it that I’m most anxious about? What is it I’m concerned about that might happen? What about that feels unsafe? What would help me feel safer? What aspects of this are within my control that I might be able to change? The greater informed we are about our anxiety, the greater the likelihood that we can learn to navigate it to our advantage.