Your anxiety is necessary — and you can learn how to work with it
If you’re feeling anxious, very anxious, or deeply anxious right now, I have good news for you: your anxiety is normal and necessary. You need your anxiety, and there are supportive skills and practices to help you work with your anxiety instead of being worked over by it.
Most of us have been taught to feel ashamed about or afraid of our anxiety, or to treat it as a sign of weakness. Some people even talk about anxiety as an epidemic, as if it’s a serious disease that’s also contagious. This is a shame, because anxiety is an essential emotion with an important job to do: it helps you prepare for the future, organize yourself, and gather the energy you need to get things done.
Right now, COVID-19 is making our futures uncertain, and because of that, our anxiety needs to be on the job – thinking, planning, and helping. We need it.
But we also need to learn how to work with anxiety, because as we all know, anxiety can feel like a lot. Anxiety can be so activating and future-focused that we can feel overwhelmed. Luckily, there are many ways to work with anxiety so that you can soothe and focus yourself, gather all of the energy and information you need, and work gracefully with your anxiety (instead of against it). In my newest book, Embracing Anxiety, I explore many ways to help you access the genius in this vital emotion.
Identifying Your Anxiety Accurately
One of the biggest hurdles people face as they learn how to work with anxiety is that they may not actually know what anxiety is. For instance, many people confuse anxiety with panic. Panic is a brilliant, lifesaving emotion that gives you the energy you need to fight, flee, or freeze when your life is in danger, but it’s not anxiety.
People also confuse the emotion of anxiety with mental health conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, or phobias. These conditions do contain anxiety — along with other emotions, psychological distress, or neurological conditions — but they’re not caused by anxiety.
Anxiety is an emotion; it’s not a disease. It’s an essential part of your intelligence, and it brings you unique skills that are irreplaceable.
Understanding Your Anxiety
Your anxiety helps you look ahead and prepare for the future. Anxiety also helps you identify problems and opportunities, and it brings you the energy and focus you need to face them.
Anxiety is essential in times of uncertainty like these, because you need to think and plan ahead even when you don’t have a clear idea about what the future will look like. Will you still have work? Will your money last? Will you and your loved ones be safe? Will you have food and housing?
There’s so much to think about and plan for right now that anxiety is necessary, and yet it can also be confusing because most of us can’t plan yet, not really. We all just have to wait and see what happens — yet also be ready to act at a moment’s notice. It’s a destabilizing time, and while our anxiety really needs to be here, helping us think, plan, organize, and take care of everything, it can feel like too much.
Specific Healing Practices for You and Your Anxiety
In anxious times, you need many supportive practices, and a soothing, reliable, grounding, and calming atmosphere to help balance yourself.
These following suggestions can help you support yourself and your anxiety in anxious times. Of course, use only what makes sense to you, and substitute your own practices if they work better.
- Listen to your emotions and track them throughout the day (this free Emotions Chart can help)
- Sigh and exhale downward to ground yourself and let go of tension (several times each the day)
- Make lists and cross off the tasks you’ve completed (this helps anxiety know you’re paying attention)
- Create order and manage small problems in a regular rhythm
- Reduce caffeine and stimulants, or stop intake by 2:00 pm so that you can clear the caffeine before bedtime
- Ask for help and social support
- Hang out with supportive friends, family, and colleagues by phone or video chat
- Laugh out loud and be silly
- Laze around with no purpose; let your brain rest
- Be in nature if you can
- Play with animals if you can
- Do your art or engage with music, drama, dance, or design (art is a specific healing practice for emotions and empathy)
- Cry when you need to
- Meditate (caution: some forms of meditation and deep breathing may worsen your anxiety; if they do, stop immediately and find a better form)
- Get heated up (sweating is important)
- Sweat-producing exercise
- Awesome sex or masturbation
- Sauna, hot tub, or hot bath until you’re utterly relaxed
- Take anti-anxiety medications or beta-blockers, if you and your doctor agree that you need them
- Create and maintain a reliable sleep schedule (see the excellent The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It by W. Chris Winter)
Your anxiety is necessary, and it doesn’t have to destabilize you if you can lean into its genius. When you can work together, you and your anxiety can weather uncertainty and upheaval without losing your way.