Using Anxiety to Your Advantage

“I just wish I wasn’t anxious all the time.”

“If my life was less stressful, things would be better.”
“This [ insert new challenge ] is just too hard. I feel more comfortable doing what I was doing before. Can we go back to that?”

Have you ever said any these statements or something similar? Maybe you’ve said all of them. I know I certainly have, and I’ve coached countless clients who have said these exact words, too. Stress and anxiety feel hard which makes us feel like we should eliminate them. But we can’t and thinking we can (or should) is far more harmful then actually addressing them head on.

I’m an anxiety prone individual. I’m always trying to do more, always thinking ahead and often deal with crippling anxiety about the worst possible scenarios. You could also label me as a high stress individual, a perfectionist, a neurotic type A personality and an aggressively judgmental person towards myself and my actions. Excellent combination, I know.

And while this might be my default mode, what was making it worse was my perception that this was actually a bad thing.

Conventional wisdom says this that stress is bad and stress is killing us. There’s tons of research on it and people are always complaining about being stressed so these statements must be true, right? Wrong.

Your stress perception is what is hurting you, not stress itself.

There are actually mountains of evidence to show:

The most stressed people are also the most fulfilled people.

Whether you see stress as a challenge or a threat influences your physiology, down to the hormones you secrete.

You can utilize stressors to your advantage to be more productive.

…and much more.

This goes against the narrative that the media and poorly understood science have shoved down our throats for the past several decades. To them, more stress = more problems so less stress = less problems. This has harmed people from being able to utilize stress for their benefit and come out on top.

Psychologists have used many phrases to describe ‘being good at stress’ such as grit, learned optimism or having a growth mindset. But one phrase that really stood out to me when learning more about stress perception was hardiness, or what Salvatore Maddi defined as the courage to grow from stress.

In a study were Maddi followed workers at the Bell Telephone Company during a particularly tumultuous year he categorized what stood out about the people who thrived during stress versus those that completely burned out. Below is an excerpt from The Upside of Stress where I first learned about this study (and so many more amazing pieces of literature on stress perception):

“First, they thought of stress differently. They saw it as a normal aspect of life, and they didn’t believe that it was possible or even desirable to have an entirely comfortable, safe life. They were more likely to acknowledge their stress and less likely to view every struggle as a catastrophe headed towards a worst-case scenario. They believed that difficult times required staying engaged with life rather than giving up or isolating oneself. Finally, they believed that no matter what the circumstances, they must continue making choices – ones that could change the situation or, if that wasn’t possible, that could change how the situation affected them.”

The same principles effect how we perceive anxiety. How common is it to hear people wishing away their anxiety and labeling it only as a negative? Yes, it can absolutely be negative and impair every aspect of your life, work, and relationships. However, wishing that it will go away will do nothing for your anxiety.

The only way to deal with anxiety is to actually learn how to cope with it.

But before we understand how to cope with anxiety, we need to understand what it is and where it comes from. It’s not enough to say, “I have anxiety, I want to fix it,” you need to know what triggers your anxiety before you can manage it.

This is where the uncomfortable work starts – when you actually sit down and face your triggers instead of shutting down just thinking about them. If I’ve seen a consistent pattern with a client where they have an anxiety provoking situation trigger poor coping mechanisms like overeating, or drinking, or emotionally resorting to negative self-talk, we work together to find the root of that issue.

Sometimes it’s as simple as reflecting on your triggers and discussing it with a trusted coach or mentor; other times it also requires deep therapy. Regardless of what approach is necessary, facing the challenge head on instead of running from it is required for you to create the lifestyle you want to live.

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