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How to Harness Your Anxiety

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistFebruary 19, 2019

Countless people are looking for effective ways to lower their anxiety, especially when it reaches crippling levels as in frequent panic attacks or chronic worry. But what if having some degree of anxiety isn’t all bad?

The truth is, though excessive anxiety can be debilitating, your anxiety response does serve an important purpose in your nervous system and can actually be helpful. By shifting your view on anxiety and even making friends with it, you may be able to use it to your advantage. Here are some ways to turn your anxiety into a force for good.

  • Embrace anxiety as natural and unavoidable. Anxiety feels like an alarm that something is wrong, and you might think you have to make it go away to make things OK. But fighting against anxiety can increase it even more, and adds a second task on top of whatever you’re trying to do. In reality, anxiety may be a sign that something is right—that you’re doing something important that you care about, even though it’s uncomfortable. So rather than fighting against anxiety, welcome it. 
  • Listen for what anxiety may be telling you. At times your anxiety may be pointing to something important, like a change you need to make in your life. This is not to say that anxiety always means you need to make a change—for example, being anxious while giving a work presentation probably doesn’t mean you need a new job. But sometimes anxiety is signaling that you’re not attending to something important, and it’s trying to get your attention. Be willing to consider whether anxiety is coming from an intuitive sense that something in your life is out of alignment, and make adjustments as needed.
  • Reinterpret it as energy. One of my friends in college told me that anxiety is “the energy to do well in new situations.” I loved that perspective, and have found it useful countless times. Rather than trying not to be anxious before an upcoming talk or an interview, I can remind myself that the anxiety will be helpful—which actually makes me feel more at ease, even if I still feel anxious.
  • Use it as a motivator. A moderate amount of anxiety can act like a spur, motivating you to action, but too much anxiety can be paralyzing. Anxiety tends to build as we avoid doing something, like tackling a new work project or making a difficult phone call, so it’s important to act before anxiety gets too high.

Think of anxiety as a call to action—to make a change, start a project, prepare for a challenge—and not as a roadblock to your goals. It’s like nitrogen for a garden—too much will burn the plants, but too little causes pale leaves and stunted growth. Let anxiety have its rightful place in your life to live more fully and freely.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

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