Embrace your fears: Anxiety can have benefits if you learn how to harness it
The emotion of anxiety evolved to protect us. Managing stress may be more useful than banishing it.
For the entirety of my adult life I have tried to avoid driving.
I could claim all sorts of noble reasons for this: Concern about the environment, a desire to save money, the health benefits gained from walking or biking.
But the main reason is that I’m anxious.
What if I did something stupid and accidentally pressed the gas pedal instead of the brake? What if a small child suddenly darted into the middle of the road? What if another driver was distracted or full of rage?
By 2020 I had managed to avoid driving for eight years, even though I’d gotten my license in high school.
Then came the pandemic.
After more than a year of hunkering down in our Manhattan neighborhood, my little family of three was yearning for new surroundings.
So, I booked lodging in the Adirondacks, about a three-hour drive from New York City, and – for the first time in my life – signed up for formal driving lessons.
On that first day, I arrived queasy and full of impending doom, muscles tensed and brain on high alert. But my instructor assured me that we would not meet our demise – we wouldn’t be driving fast enough for that, he explained – and then he told me something that nobody ever had: “The fear never leaves you.”
You have to learn to harness it, he said. Have just enough fear to stay alert and be aware of your surroundings, but not so much that it is making you overly hesitant.
The idea that I didn’t need to completely erase my anxiety was freeing.
Having some anxiety – especially when faced with a stressful situation – isn’t necessarily bad and can actually be helpful, experts say.
THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF ANXIETY CAN IMPROVE PERFORMANCE
Anxiety is an uncomfortable emotion, often fueled by uncertainty. It can create intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear, not just about stressful events but also about everyday situations. There are usually physical symptoms too, like fast heart rate, muscle tension, rapid breathing, sweating and fatigue.
Too much anxiety can be debilitating. But a normal amount is meant to help keep us safe, experts say.
“The emotion of anxiety and the underlying physiological stress response evolved to protect us,” Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist and the author of Good Anxiety, said.
In her book, Dr Suzuki explains that managing stress may be more useful than banishing it. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a theory that originated in the early 20th century from experiments on mice, increasing amounts of cognitive arousal, or stress, can improve performance – but only up to a certain point. The theory, represented by a curve shaped like a mountain, shows that after the curve peaks, greater levels of stress cause performance to suffer.
When anxiety is turned up too high, Dr Suzuki added, it tends to become less useful. The first step in taming anxiety that holds you back is to recognise when you’re feeling overly anxious and try to dial it down.
“My No. 1 tip is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – the neurons that can slow heart rate and help people feel more calm – by deep breathing,” she said. “It’s a very powerful tool to have in your back pocket.”
Deep breathing can take place anytime or anywhere, she said, whether standing in a line, sitting in class, or, in my case, driving.
In addition, physical activity – even something as simple as walking outside – can increase the level of serotonin and dopamine in your brain, which may also help lower anxiety to a more manageable level, she said.
A certain degree of anxiety can help people anticipate obstacles, remain cautious and stay organised, said Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist in Boston and the author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.
But if anxiety is making you “uncomfortable more often than not” or interfering with day-to-day functioning and preventing you from living the life you want to live, Dr Hendriksen added, that signals the need for additional support, ideally from a mental health professional.
ANXIETY CAN HELP YOU RECOGNIZE WHAT ISN’T WORKING
Seth Gillihan, a psychologist in Philadelphia and author of The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Rumination and Worry, said he often used to feel anxious before starting his work day. At the time, he focused on managing his anxiety rather than examining what was causing it. Finally, he realised that the anxiety itself wasn’t the problem.
“I was working for a long time in a way that wasn’t sustainable,” said Dr Gillihan, whose ongoing health problems have sometimes made it difficult to maintain a full schedule.
So he cut back his clinic hours, and spent additional time writing and podcasting, two of his passions.
Now, he said, he is grateful that he listened to what his body was trying to tell him rather than trying to suppress those feelings.
“A lot of the distress that we feel with anxiety comes from the resistance to it,” he said. “We are doubling our suffering by being anxious and also feeling like, ‘I need to stop feeling anxious’ – so we’re fighting on two fronts.”
“I think of it like an alarm – like a smoke detector – a good alarm isn’t silenced all the time,” Dr Gillihan added.
ACCEPTING ANXIETY CAN HELP YOU FACE YOUR FEARS
If you find yourself overestimating the risk of something terrible happening, start by acknowledging your anxiety and looking at it objectively, said Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist at the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Chico, California, and the author of Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss.
Remind yourself that this is the emotional reaction that occurs when you anticipate bad things will happen, he said, an inconvenient annoyance, “almost like my brain is a child throwing a tantrum right now.”
Be patient and kind with yourself, he said, the way you would be with a friend, as you take small, manageable steps to confront your fears.
“This is an opportunity to learn how to accept and tolerate anxiety,” he added.
Todd B Kashdan, a professor of psychology and director of the Well-Being Lab at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, was working up the courage to finally try outdoor rock climbing in Arizona; he started small by scaling the rock climbing wall at his gym.
During his first attempt outdoors, his hands were sweating so much the chalk wouldn’t stay on. One of the guides gave him a choice: You can stay on the ground – alone, in the middle of the desert – or you can climb, and take your anxiety with you.
“My heart was exploding,” said Dr Kashdan, co-author of The Upside of Your Dark Side, a book that explores the usefulness of anger, anxiety and doubt. “But I had a very clear task and I knew that I could do it with the anxiety because this expert guide told me he’s done it, people do it, you’re going to do it.”
ANXIETY CAN BREED CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
Anxious people tend to be careful and cautious, and they can channel those tendencies into conscientiousness, Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit, said.
“I’m someone who’s always been anxious,” Dr Boyes said. “I was the kind of kid who refused to go to school camp or refused to stay at other people’s houses. I was always getting sore tummies and that kind of thing before sports events at school.”
As she grew up, she continued to worry about things going wrong, but she also started making contingency plans, which helped to calm her fears and reduce the likelihood of any worst-case scenarios. When travelling, for example, she scopes out her destination in advance, studying the surrounding streets to avoid getting lost.
The goal is to create a plan that will help reduce your worries, and then follow through.
In my case, preparing ahead of time was what eventually gave me the confidence to drive upstate. It took eight driving lessons, a nervous last-minute text to my instructor and a rental car with advanced safety features.
Finally, my family packed up and set off.
“Mama is a driver!” my 4-year-old daughter said from the back seat.
“That’s right!” I replied, starting to feel a glimmer of pride. “I am.”
By Christina Caron © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.