Anxiety has long been one of the most feared enemies in our emotional canon. We fear its arrival, feel helpless and trapped under its spell, and grant it power to overtake us in new, exciting and challenging situations. But what if we’ve been going about it all wrong?
Research shows that anxiety can actually be a pathway to our best selves. A range of new neuroscience, along with ideas from ancient philosophy, Charles Darwin, early social scientists and positive psychology, have all pointed in this direction.
To be sure, severe anxiety can be debilitating. But for many people who experience it at more moderate levels it can be helpful, if we are open enough to embrace and reframe it.
For example, if anxiety is holding you back from applying for a new job, tell yourself that the feeling of your heart racing, which you thought was the discomfort of anxiety, is actually a crackle of excitement. This can help motivate you to apply for the job rather than shrinking from the opportunity.
Anxiety has often been linked to the “primitive” part of our brain, an “irrational” remnant left over from our time in the savanna dodging wild animals. This framing can make anxiety doubly problematic: it is seen as both destructive and useless. Most coping strategies based in cognitive behavior therapy likewise assume this view of anxiety and strive to eradicate, or at least quiet, it. And we have learned to fear it.
For a variety of reasons, we are engaged in a feedback loop with anxiety. Fearing it, and in response, trying to avoid it or push it down, is part of what can make it such a problem for us. It feels like an obstacle because we have been treating it as such. But the less we fear anxiety and can embrace it, the more useful and helpful it can be.
A large-scale study from the University of Wisconsin in 2012 demonstrated that how we think about anxiety and stress can change how those feelings impact us. Regardless of actual stress levels, the less harmful you believe the feeling is, the less harmful it will be. “Our minds aren’t passive observers simply perceiving reality,” the Stanford research scientist Alia Crum explained in a speech at, of all places, the World Economic Forum. “Our minds actually change reality. In other words the reality we will experience tomorrow is in part a product of the mind-sets we hold today.”
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