How To Harness The Healthy Side Of Anxiety, From A Clinical Psychologist
As a clinical psychologist, people often ask me how to "get rid of anxiety." They are usually surprised to learn that anxiety actually has a healthy and essential function: to help stimulate preparation behaviors and provide us with the extra energy we need to carry out those behaviors. A little bit of anxiety can bring adrenaline and focus—which can actually be quite handy when we're in a "go time" situation like taking a test, bringing our A-game during an important presentation, or even getting ready for a first date or job interview. I've come to label this boost as "nervous energy," which can be a gift if we learn how to harness it.
Exactly how does one harness the power of anxiety? That depends on the reason behind the anxiety. Once you recognize anxiety is often a healthy signal guiding you to take action, it's easier to see that there is no one-size-fits-all best response. To help break it down and see which type of approach might be best, I often check to see if the anxiety is in one of three categories:
Anxiety that wants you to prepare for challenges.
You are going to present at a big meeting soon, with all of the senior managers watching. You're feeling restless and have racing thoughts. You keep feeling jolts of anxiety as you sit at your desk, picturing the meeting and wondering what you'll say.
Action to take:
Instead of just ruminating with fear that the meeting won't go well, channel your nervous energy into making a task list of preparation steps for yourself, such as creating a presentation outline; practicing your presentation; visualizing the meeting going well; or even preselecting a friendly ally or two in the audience who will plan to chime in with a positive remark. Almost any prep action at all, even if it seems basic, will help ensure a positive outcome for you—plus it will help calm you down by burning off the extra adrenaline you may have from anxiety about the big event.
Anxiety that wants you to restore or reflect after a big challenge.
The big meeting is now over. It went very well, and you got lots of compliments, but you're still feeling really anxious and keyed up from the pressure of the presentation. It's as if your body and mind don't seem to realize the event is now over, so they're still stuck in high gear.
Action to take:
Channel the residual nervous energy from your presentation into planning a healthy way to mentally and physically settle yourself down, while also celebrating your success. For example, you might get a massage while listening to a good audiobook, or go for a run while listening to a playlist of feel-good songs.
After a big event, we're sometimes left with a cognitive habit of constantly thinking about how to prepare—even though preparation has become moot. This can be very frustrating since we're basically just spinning our wheels at that point. At times like this, it can be very helpful to intentionally redirect your residual nervous energy toward relaxation and restoration.
Anxiety that doesn't fit the categories above.
If you're not sure which category your anxiety falls into, or if the steps above don't seem to help, that's actually a very important discovery for you to make. This insight may be guiding you to explore your anxiety so that you can better understand how to soothe it.
Action to take:
The first step is to get clarity about the root of your anxiety so that you can understand what actions it is guiding you to take. The most helpful thing to do in this situation is often to journal and/or talk with a trusted friend or therapist to help you reflect and understand your feelings better. Spending time writing or talking about your anxiety in a nonjudgmental way can help you get in touch with it and determine what next steps will serve you best.
For example, you might come to discover that you're anxious because of a conscious or unconscious belief that you must always be perfect. This type of anxiety could benefit from healthy steps like actively working on your self-esteem and learning to override the pressure of perfection. Or perhaps you're anxious from a general lack of social support or dissatisfaction with your job. In those cases, building social connections or finding a new job could help.
Many people lose awareness of the source of their anxiety because of a belief that anxiety is always bad: This leads them to block out the anxiety, thereby losing insight regarding its source. You may find that by opening up to the possibility that your anxiety could have a healthy purpose, it becomes easier to understand the sources of anxiety in your life and what is the best way to respond. Of course, some anxiety truly seems to come without a productive reason and is best handled by simply redirecting your thoughts or through medication or other support from a trained professional—certainly don't hesitate to seek help if you feel stuck. The perspectives here are just ideas to consider, but only you know what's best for you.
By stifling or blocking our anxiety, we may actually lose insight about a potential trigger. Instead, you may find that by opening up to the possibility that your anxiety could have a healthy purpose, it becomes easier to understand the sources of anxiety in your life and what is the best way to respond.
This approach can create empowerment to work toward goals, practice restorative behaviors, or embrace whatever healthy self-care the anxiety is guiding you to do. For more examples and ways to do this, check out my book Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety. As a former yoga teacher and now psychologist, I love helping people understand how to use their energy insightfully, effectively, and joyfully.
Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University with departmental honors in Psychology, and earned her Ph.D. from Long Island University’s program in Clinical Psychology, which is accredited by the American Psychological Association. She emphasizes positivity and wellness, often through the lens of anxiety management, relationships, and goal attainment. She is the author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, and Dr. Chloe’s 10 Commandments of Dating.
She heads a successful private practice in New York City that focuses primarily on relationship issues and stress to help high achievers. She is a member in good standing of the American Psychological Association and the National Register of Health Psychologists, an elite membership for psychologists with the highest standards of education and board scores.
As an expert in anxiety, Carmichael has taught stress management techniques at Fortune 500 companies as well as in her own private practice. She launched an online anxiety treatment program: Anxiety Tools, which has users throughout the United States and around the world. As a certified yoga instructor, Carmichael is an expert in both the science and meditation side to anxiety treatment. Her holistic approach integrates a special blend of techniques that have been shown to help people overcome anxiety.