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While some cases of anxiety are serious enough to require medical treatment, everyday anxiety is a fact of life and can actually be helpful, says psychologist Bob Rosen, author of Conscious: The Power of Awareness in Business and Life.
“How you use it makes all the difference,” he says. “As the world gets faster and more uncertain, it’s easy to let [anxiety] overwhelm you. People get hijacked by their reptilian brain survival instincts and fear. On the flip side, denying or running from anxiety causes you to become complacent. You can use anxiety in a positive way and turn it into a powerful force in your life if you strike a balance.”
The first hurdle to get over is viewing anxiety through a negative lens. “We see anxiety as something to fear and avoid,” says Rosen. “That thinking is self-defeating and makes it worse. In a sense, we need to see anxiety as a wake-up call; a message inside of our mind telling us to pay attention. We need to accept it as a natural part of the human experience.”
Another problem is our faulty thinking around change, says Rosen. “For centuries, it was viewed as dangerous or life threatening,” he says. “But stability is an illusion, and uncertainty is reality. Uncertainty makes you anxious and vulnerable, and anxiety leads you to worry or run away because you’re not in control of life anymore and you feel worse.”
People often move back and forth between too much, just enough, and too little anxiety, and anxiety is contagious, says Rosen: “We communicate our level of anxiety to others because we’re connected to each other,” he says. “Studies show that your blood pressure can go up when you deal with a manger who is disrespectful, unfair, or overly anxious. People are hijacked more and more because of too much anxiety.”
Anxiety is energy, and you can strike the right balance if you know what to look for:
Too Much Anxiety
Some people naturally have too much anxiety, and that’s a problem. “These are the people who need to be right, powerful, in control, and successful,” says Rosen. “They orchestrate everything around them, and are mistrustful or suspicious. They’re scared of inadequacy, failure, being insignificant, or being taken advantage of.”
You have too much anxiety if you tend to expect respect and admiration, are frustrated a lot, question the motives of others, and are overly impatient, says Rosen.
Too Little Anxiety
Too little anxiety isn’t good either. “You put your head in the sand in the face of change,” says Rosen. “You don’t want to take risks. You value status quo and live in a bubble.”
You have too little anxiety if you’re too idealistic and cautious, detaching from all of the change around you. “The world is changing faster than our ability to adapt. We need to learn new things, and can’t stay complacent for long,” he says. “It’s important to allow yourself to stretch and to feel just the right amount of anxiety.”
Living with the right amount of anxiety provides just enough tension to drive you forward without causing you to resist, give up, or try to control what happens. “It’s a productive energy,” says Rosen.
The first step is getting comfortable being uncomfortable. “A lot of people think the goal of life is to be happy, but it’s not,” says Rosen. “The goal is to live a full life, and sometimes you’ll have good days and sometimes bad days. Develop the skill of being uncomfortable. Knowing you can and will get through it is important.”
Listen to your body; it speaks to you, says Rosen. “Whether it’s stomach pain or heart palpitations or a stiff neck or back, these are ways the body tells you that you are anxious,” he says.
Ask yourself why you’re anxious. Is it because you’re excited? How you interpret anxiety could be good or bad. If you’re about to give a speech, for example, anxiety is good. Instead of trying to avoid it, understand it. “If you’re not anxious, you’re probably not going to give a great speech,” says Rosen. “And if you’re too anxious, that won’t be a great speech, either.”
When you have too much anxiety, it’s often because you’re telling yourself a story. “For example, ‘If I don’t do a good job I’ll get fired,’ ‘My boss hates me,’ or ‘I’m going to embarrass myself,'” says Rosen. It’s often not the event that causes anxiety; it’s the story we tell ourselves about it.”
When this happens, take a long walk or breathe deeply if you have too much anxiety. Meditation is a force that helps you live in the present moment. “When you meditate, you get a better sense of how your body and mind are reacting,” he says. “Deep breathing creates a direct connection between your breath and reducing stress. You can get a sense of the source of the anxiety, peel back the onion, and find the cause.”
All change happens in the gap between our current reality and desired future, says Rosen. “We have a problem we want to solve or have a goal we want to accomplish,” he says. “In the gap sits our motivation, our engagement, and our anxiety. Anxiety is the energy that moves us across the gap. We need to have enough energy to change. You can’t change or transform yourself unless you allow yourself to feel uncertainty and vulnerability.”