If we learn to embrace and work with our anxiety, it can help us learn and grow. I know how that sounds, but it really is true! I have anxiety. You probably do, too. There’s so much going on in the world and so many stressful things pulling us around, it’s hard to imagine there’s a person on this planet that isn’t experiencing anxiety, so it’s worth trying to reframe it and work with it.
What Is Anxiety?
In my years of meeting people through counseling, speaking, and training, I’ve found people have their own unique ways of defining and describing anxiety. Some interpret it as anger, while others just say they feel “yucky.”
It’s a very individual thing! Nevertheless, let’s go ahead and start with some formal definitions.
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as, “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
The NIH defines anxiety as, “a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness. It might cause you to sweat, feel restless and tense, and have a rapid heartbeat.”
So there it is: anxiety is a reaction…a reaction with lots of awful words associated with it – tension, worry, fear dread, uneasiness. It’s like an alarm ringing constantly through the day, keeping us in a state where we feel like we’re in danger and urging us to get to safety, even though we may be sitting at home, quite safe. It’s difficult, and for a lot of us, this reaction takes up a lot of our day (and night!).
Reframing Anxiety and Growing from It
Can anxiety be our friend? Even if it’s not a welcome friend, can we reframe this unpleasant and unwanted feeling to help us on our journey of personal growth and self discovery?
In my own personal struggle with anxiety, I had to make a profound shift to start the healing and reframing process (it even ended up spawning a TEDx talk). I had to find a way to have a relationship with anxiety that was somewhat productive, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to go on.
Here are four things that have helped me to better appreciate anxiety as more than a reaction – four things that have helped me manage anxiety and use it to grow. I hope they can help you, too.
1. Anxiety is a motivator. When life is humming along, we can handle it, right? But then something happens and suddenly we’re in anxiety mode. That’s when we seek out different practices like meditation, yoga, and exercise…or we reach out to friends. Maybe we find books or podcasts or articles to learn new things to help us cope or to hear someone else’s story about stress and anxiety. When anxiety creeps up, it motivates me to get back into my practices and personal growth toolbox to manage it and thrive.
2. Anxiety gets us to practice and develop mindfulness. I’ve trained myself over the years to become radically aware of stress and anxiety, and how it feels in my mind and body. When I feel it, I try not to judge myself for the feelings. Instead, I use a tool like a breathing technique to get a handle on it and ground myself in the moment. I still have the stress reaction, but mindfulness short circuits it by bringing awareness to it. Here’s a practice I use: (1) stop and become aware of the stress or anxiety; (2) breathe in for a count of four and then out for a count of eight; (3) repeat; (4) if your attention strays from the breath count, gently bring your awareness back. It’s simple, effective, and you can practice anywhere.
3. Anxiety heightens empathy. When I enter serious anxiety mode, it heightens my awareness that there are millions of people on this planet feeling this. As a former social work counselor who worked with clients on anxiety, a coach who works with it, and a human (empath) who has it, I know there’s a community out there. When you have stress and anxiety, remember: you’re growing closer to understanding the human condition and are better equipped to support others who’re suffering. And that’s a good thing!
4. Anxiety is humbling. Stress and anxiety remind us we’re human and that we’re not perfect. Sometimes, it’s a forced pause and a nudge to reach out for help. If we embrace that feeling, we can thrive.
Anxiety isn’t fun. It can be unpleasant or even painful. But if we learn to appreciate it, and work with it, we not only transform it, but it just may transform us.
Discover more tips and tools for mindfulness and personal growth, here.
Learn more about the 4-8 mindful breathing technique and how it helped me, here.
To read about how mindfulness and meditation can help with the anxiety struggle, check out An Audible Silence:
A version of this article was originally published on my blog.