Anxiety Can Energize and Focus Us

Your anxiety provides the essential support you need to think and plan, focus on the future, complete your tasks, and meet your deadlines. In fact, you couldn’t get anything done without your anxiety.” Karla Mclaren

If you prefer to listen

The uncertainty of pandemic has infused anxiety in everyone. And that is on top of the anxiety we had back when things were “normal.” Anxiety is our response to a perceived threat.  External threats include the pandemic, the threat of losing your job, or not having enough money to pay your bills.  Internal threats usually center around feeling we will fail or we won’t live up to the expectations of others.

I did not realize how often I was feeling anxiety until I read the descriptions Karla Mclaren used to describe the different levels of anxiety (see below). Like most task-oriented people, I constantly live with a subtle level of anxiety. Oprah has said and thought thousands of times, “Listen to your life as it whispers to you first so that it does not have to knock you upside the head with a brick or come crashing down on you as a brick wall.”

  • Subtle levels of anxiety: careful, attentive, aware, watchful, anticipatory, prepared, organized
  • Medium level of anxiety: alert, apprehensive, disconcerted, uneasy, anxious, unsettled, nervous
  • Intense level of anxiety: tense, overwhelmed, jumpy, rattled, flustered, alarmed

So, I need to listen to my life as I find myself looking up the case numbers multiple times a day, as if they will change when I look again. Listen as I read article after article, and doom scroll through the information on my Facebook or Twitter feed. I hope that I will finally find the information I need to for a magic fix to this problem.  But there is no quick fix and the future remains uncertain so my behavior just makes my anxiety increase.

Our reactions to anxiety run a continuum from feeling overwhelmed and helpless, to acknowledging our anxiety and being spurred to action, to sticking our head in the sand and pretending there is no problem.  When we feel overwhelmed, we often express it by running ourselves ragged, ignoring everything except the situation we are anxious about. When we stick our head in the sand or repress it, the anxiety is likely to come at us with more intensity. It takes a lot of energy to repress anxiety.

Which one we choose at any given moment is influenced by the level of our anxiety.  That is why it is so important to listen to our body and take care of our anxiety when it is subtle rather than ignoring it until it is intense.

We often think of anxiety as bad.  But according to Karla Mclaren, “Your anxiety provides the essential support you need to think and plan, focus on the future, complete your tasks, and meet your deadlines. In fact, you couldn’t get anything done without your anxiety.” So, anxiety can be helpful if we work with it. If we listen to it, anxiety has important messages for us, and brings us the skills, awareness, and energy we need.

Only when we let our anxiety get out of control is it bad. How many of you start rushing when you feel anxious? When we rush, we start making mistakes, losing things, etc. Thus, our anxiety that things are going to go wrong actually makes things go wrong.

 Mclaren says, “Focusing only on the trouble we can get into with our emotions means that we may learn to see our emotions as problems instead of what they truly are: essential parts of our intelligence and our cognition, each of which brings us gifts, skills, and forms of genius that are irreplaceable.”

Anxiety is often focused on the future. We look for what might be around the corner and can go wrong. But that is just our brains being the prediction machines that they naturally are. In reality, everything we are anxious about is imagined and not necessarily going to come true. We need our prediction machine so we can be prepared for the future. And we need to look at our past to see what mistakes and failures we do not want to repeat. When we do that, anxiety can energize and focus us.  It backfires when we allow ourselves to get caught in the loop of the movie of the dangerous future and the ruminations of the past.

Anxiety is often mistaken for panic or other emotions because the anxiety is trying to focus our attention on the suppressed emotion or the painful experience. It is telling us to move through these negative feelings rather than try to suppress them.

I read on that “Anxiety softens when we can create a space between ourselves and what we’re experiencing.” This is based on Victor Frankl’s powerful insight, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”

Anxiety is so activating; it can feel uncomfortable or even overwhelming. When we are anxious, we often act in ways that are not mindful. We create habits that are not necessarily helpful. If we can pause and bring our mind back to the present moment, we may gain access to our inner resources of wisdom, strength and love. By having the wisdom to know whether we can change a situation, we can response to it in a more skillful manner.  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Karl Paul Reinhold Nieb uhr

It is much easier to pause when our anxiety is subtle.  It may feel impossible to pause when our anxiety is intense.  So, we begin by working with our feeling of being careful, attentive, aware, watchful, anticipatory, prepared, or organized.  We pause, look at the feeling and determine what it is telling us to do.  Then we take the right action. By practicing with the little things, we are training our brain to do the same with the medium or intense level anxieties.

Some strategies for helping our anxiety to give us focus and strength are:

  1. Have the intention noticing and working with your anxiety when it is subtle.
  2. Look at where you are at on the anxiety continuum.  If you are at either end, you are likely to be stuck. To get unstuck, you need to take small steps.  If you take big steps, you are likely to feel overwhelmed, helpless and trapped. 
  3. For subtle anxiety simply bring your attention to your body or your breath to bring you back to the present moment.
  4. For medium or intense anxiety, use RAIN to Recognize what you are feeling, Allow the external situation and your feelings about it to be what they are, Investigate what most needs attention and Nurture yourself with self-care.
  5. In your everyday life pay attention to how much you can do and learn how much is too much. Before you reach your limit, have the courage to say “Enough.”
  6. Write down what is making you anxious so that your anxiety knows you have listened. This clears space in your mind and engages your prefrontal cortex to look at solutions and determine what wise actions to take.
  7. Create regular rest and relaxation breaks. Too much focus can be as destabilizing as too little focus. 
  8. Practice compassionate self-talk, gradually overtime we do less judgement talk and learn what the anxious person inside of us needs to hear.

We can’t get rid of anxiety.  External circumstances will occur that cause us to be anxious.  But we can notice our anxiety when it is subtle, when we can pause and look at what is causing the anxiety.  Instead of trying to fight it or ignore it, we can work with it and allow it to focus and energize us.