Anxiety – troubled foe or friendly tool?

We are currently living in extraordinarily unprecedented and uncertain times. Anxiety levels for many are high, higher or a first.

There are many anxiety tackling and management techniques, such as breathing and mindfulness, that can lower adrenaline and cortisol levels – the stress hormone – to help us feel calm, and the decision-making part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, to fully function.

However, if we better understood anxiety’s positive intention, could we use it to our advantage? In my experience, the better informed we are, the better equipped we are to manage life’s ups and downs.

So what is anxiety?

It’s one of many normal, and healthy, human emotions. Thus, we’re all capable of experiencing it. Some manage it better than others. Just because it’s not shown, doesn’t mean it’s not experienced!

Cause(s) will be unique to the individual. Perhaps a certain environment, person(s), task, or change, something new, scary, our belief system, or a specific phobia. People with certain personality types are more prone to anxiety than others.

Generally speaking, anxiety is a worry about future events, and fear as a reaction to current events. Fear triggers our automatic, vital, warning system, which starts flooding the body with chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, ready for ‘what happens next’?

It’s felt in our mind and our body. Racing, ‘what if’, panicky, thoughts are common. Feelings may cause physical symptoms, such as fast heart rate, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, shakiness, upset tummies, panic attacks.

Anxiety might become a clinically diagnosable medical disorder if a person regularly feels disproportionate levels of anxiety, again that will be person-specific. Anxiety disorders form a category of mental health diagnoses that include excessive nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worry. Medication and/or therapy may be required.

What’s its purpose? What does it do for us?

As an emotion, anxiety’s positively healthy purpose is:

  • Act as our warning system.

  • Raises/heightens our awareness.

  • Increases alertness.

  • Prepares us for the unexpected, the unknown, the scary.

  • Evokes our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

  • Serves to keep us, our loved ones, safe.

  • Protects us.

However, further positive intentions beyond safety and protection include:

  • A sign, a clue and cue for action(s).

  • Galvanise, drive, motivate.

  • Stimulates questioning, exploration, curiosity.

  • Helps identify what we need more of eg. information, clarification, knowledge, skill, support, planning, preparation etc.

The caveat here is to choose your information sources wisely. Stop listening/reading/watching excessive media which can increase anxiety through muddled, mixed and incorrect messaging. Cut out the intermediaries, the opinionators, the interpreters, and use a trusted source.

  • Sharpens focus.

  • Gives direction.

  • Helps plan, prepare, organise actions which, in itself, keeps us busy and can reduce anxiety.

  • Encourages challenging our thinking/decision making/what needs changing.

  • What we need to DO.

  • To do something…. And something different.

  • Shifts us away from unknown, uncertainty, fear, towards a more knowing, informed, overcoming, less fearful position.

How can we use anxiety then?

By thinking about it differently. It’s not the ‘negative’ many think or believe it is.

Understand it’s a normal, useful, healthy emotion, and emotions are manageable, controllable and have a positive intention.

So apply that understanding to anxiety. Control (and manage) it, rather than it control you. Use its intended purposes as above; make it a friend rather than foe, a tool rather than trouble.

Finally, I am personally, and starkly, reminded of profound learning whilst recovering from mental illness several years ago: “Sometimes we have no control over what happens to us, BUT, we do have control and choice over how we manage it”.


Text by Sylvia Bruce

Preview Image by Photo by Tonik

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