Anxiety has a bad reputation. But it is your friend.
Written by Mary C. Lamia, OH.D.
Anxiety has a bad reputation and often people seek ways to get rid of it with medication, stress reduction exercises or warm baths. Sure, anxiety can be extreme and is often the culprit behind obsessive-compulsive behaviors, attention problems or, at very high levels, paranoia. Even so, anxiety is your friend, and it can help you to be successful if you listen to it and appropriately interpret it. I often encounter patients who want to get rid of their anxiety, but upon inquiry, it is clear that they only want to get rid of it sometimes. At other times anxiety gives them an advantage by providing them with drive, focus and directed attention.
Anxiety, as an emotion, is a vague warning sign that makes you think and feel as though something is about to happen and you must take action. The emotion is triggered by your brain, which then causes your sympathetic nervous system to create tension in your body and corresponding thoughts in your mind. Since anxiety, like all emotions, is non-specific, when it is triggered you place it in the context of your environment or current concerns.
Consider a simple example: You are leaving the house for an important meeting, heading toward your car and suddenly wonder if you locked the front door (and maybe you didn’t). If you think about why your anxiety was triggered it may be that your brain is alerting you to the fact that you usually lock the door and this time you didn’t. On the other hand, as you walked to the car you started thinking about an aspect of your important meeting today. Anxiety was triggered in your brain and you could be attributing that anxiety to the door being left unlocked. You might go back to check the door, find it locked, and then wonder if you have OCD. But you don’t. Such responses to anxiety are normal. However, at the extreme, certain responses to anxiety — such as going back four times to see if the door is locked — can constitute symptoms of a disorder.
The vague warning signs of anxiety can be a helpful friend if you respond to them appropriately. Recently, a businesswoman remarked to me that if she had not been anxious about a sales call, she would not have noticed that her assistant had left out some important documents for the file. Given her history with this assistant, she was automatically and unconsciously alerted to make certain that she had what she needed.
Highly effective business and sales professionals use their anxiety to enhance productivity, attention and task completion. At optimal levels, anxiety can put you on top of your game because it sharpens your focus, helps you to think on your feet and energizes you. At such times people are driven and what drives them is their friend, anxiety. Some sales people maintain that a successful day does not necessarily relieve anxiety because the emotion is triggered again by the thought that their success might end. Therefore they are subsequently motivated to pursue other avenues for sales that lead to maintaining their success.
Granted, there are times when anxiety does not seem to be a healthy or welcome friend and it might even lead you astray — like when you interpret that vague sense of angst as needing a drink, a pill or an inappropriate sexual partner. But your response to anxiety is not the fault of the emotion itself. The emotion is simply alerting you to something, but your interpretation of exactly what that is happens to be based upon your resulting thoughts and feelings. Similarly, if you are in a country where you do not understand the language and ask someone for directions to a specific place, you might have a difficult time grasping the details beyond the hand signal he provides about which way to walk. Such is the language of emotion. It gives you a vague direction because it evokes feelings and thoughts, but, beyond that, the interpretation is up to you.
Your emotional system can lag with residual energy, much like a friend who lingers when you want him to leave. As it is with a friend who hangs around too long, you might become agitated, annoyed or misinterpret the intent of your anxiety and its residual effects. Such generalized anxiety is often cast in a negative light, while focused anxiety is experienced as productive — a nervous energy that keeps you motivated. For example, an anxiety-driven and highly successful investment banker reported that following a successful negotiation he found himself agitated on the trip home. But the lingering effect of anxiety that annoyed him was the same “friend” who had helped create his earlier focus.
When you are on alert because of a triggered emotion, you have to register, or be sensitive to, the conditions that will alleviate your anxiety following the task or project. For example, lingering effects could make it difficult to calm down so you might have to plan a healthy way to calm yourself under those circumstances. Similarly, the “high” you might experience with focused anxiety can leave you with left-over effects that you interpret negatively due to the relative absence of stimulation.
Anxiety can also be like a friend who keeps you awake when it’s time to sleep. As the minutes tick by, your brain triggers anxiety that annoys you with worries and reminders of things you must get done the following day. In such instances, it is important to identify what’s important and what is not; what issues you can solve at the moment and what is better left for the following day. Before going to bed make certain that you are prepared for the next day in terms of reminders about what you need to do so your brain won’t alert you to stay awake in order to remember. Structure your environment to remind you by having a system in place that you can trust. Otherwise your friend, anxiety, might jolt you awake in order to help you to remember.
For more information see www.marylamia.com