How To Make Anxiety Work For You

By Bob Rosen Ph.D

Remember when you were a little kid? One of your friends may have zapped you with a rubber band. Ouch! You learned quickly that rubber bands can hurt, releasing their potential energy on you with a vengeance. Most of us still can’t resist shooting a rubber band. We know that if we stretch it too far, the band will snap and slap us. When we don’t stretch the band enough, it will go limp and fall at our feet. To make the rubber band soar across the room, we need to put just enough tension into it so it has sufficient energy to go where we want it to strike.

The rubber band metaphor captures the essence of how to live with our anxiety, a clear side effect of our fast, disruptive world and the stress in our daily lives. Uncertainty is a reality and anxiety is our natural partner. Yet it is imperative that we get real about our anxiety. Successful people understand that the bigger threat to peace of mind is not anxiety itself, but rather the way we perceive it.

Most of us see anxiety as something to fear and avoid. This thinking is self-defeating and can even make us more anxious. This is how the thinking goes: Uncertainty makes me anxious. I feel vulnerable. Anxiety leads me to worry or run away. Now I’m no longer in control of my life and that feels even worse!

This faulty but common thinking comes from centuries of viewing change as dangerous and even life-threatening. It comes from medical models that frame anxiety as solely a mental health problem. Clearly, excessive anxiety needs to be treated by a professional. Yet, for many of us, anxiety is a source of stored energy that can be used to our advantage.

Anxiety Is a Wake-Up Call

Anxiety is a message inside our body telling us to pay attention. Getting real about anxiety leads you to uncover the hidden driver of life and business success. Accepting it as a natural part of the human experience is to get real about what living consciously actually means. Like a rubber band, too much anxiety will cause us to snap. Too little anxiety and we stay stuck. Living with just enough anxiety is where we want to be.

The Three Faces of Anxiety

Too little anxiety: The face of complacency

Having too little anxiety is like living life with your head in the sand. You naturally avoid change and over-value the status quo. Not surprisingly, people like this live in a protective bubble. Maybe their parents spared them from difficulty, or maybe they learned at an early age that they needed to protect themselves from uncertainty and complexity. Whatever the reason, this approach to our changing world doesn’t work anymore.

Too much anxiety: The face of chaos

Most of us are too familiar with too much anxiety. Today’s frenetic world makes it difficult to avoid.  Some people are even vulnerable to making too much anxiety a habit. One problem is that many of these people are too attached to success. Their need to be right, in control, and powerful drives their behavior and creates unhealthy energy around them. Underlying this attachment is fear—fear of failure, inadequacy, insignificance, or being taken advantage of.Emotionally, people with too much anxiety are out of touch with themselves in the moment. Inside, they are often being held hostage by negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear.  On the outside, they wear their feelings on their sleeves, bringing their inner chaotic energy to everyone around them.

Just enough anxiety: The face of success

Just enough anxiety is the right level of tension that drives you forward without causing you to resist, give up, or try to control what happens.  With just the right amount, anxiety creates the optimal conditions for learning so you can stretch beyond your current reality into your desired future. It allows you to close the gaps between who you are and who you wish to be.

Making Anxiety Work for You

What do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you see the face of complacency? The face of fear? Or do you see the face of acceleration? You have probably seen different faces at different times in your life.

We all lean toward too little or too much anxiety under stress. Some of us are drawn repeatedly into too much anxiety. Others gravitate toward too little. Nobody remains in the middle all of the time.  The goal is to maintain your balance. Getting diverted from the middle for too long can have dramatic consequences.

  • Too little anxiety produces ineffective energy
  • Too much anxiety generates chaotic energy
  • Just enough anxiety accelerates your path forward

To live with just enough anxiety, you need to know when you are moving toward too little or too much anxiety and make a quick course correction back to center. To do this you need to be conscious, self-aware, and understand how you are affecting others. Each time you rebound back to center, it gets a little easier because you understand what works for you.

References

Rosen, Bob & Swann, Emma-Kate (2018). CONSCIOUS: The Power of Awareness in Business and LIfe. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Rosen, Robert, Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success. NY: Penguin.

This post first appeared on Psychology Today as Anxiety is a fact of life

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