Welcoming the gifts of anxiety

There are gifts in anxiety?

Yes! People are often very surprised to learn that anxiety contains gifts, because anxiety is usually described only in terms of disorder or disease. However, at its most subtle level, anxiety (which is related to fear) helps you plan for the future and complete important tasks. Really!

When I look at the problem of nuance, I see that so many of us are taught to identify emotions only when they’re in a heightened state. This means that when we think of anger, we tend to think of rage rather than the calm boundary-setting skills that nuanced anger brings to us. Or when we think of fear, we tend to think of extreme alarm rather than the grounded instincts and awareness that nuanced fear brings to us.

It’s the same with anxiety: when we think of it, we tend to think of intense, gut-wrenching anxiety rather than the focused, task-completion abilities that nuanced anxiety brings to us. So let’s bring nuance to this important emotion, and let’s approach anxiety empathically so that we can uncover its gifts.

ANXIETY (or Worry): Focus & Completion

GIFTS: Foresight ~ Focus ~ Conscience ~ Task-completion ~ Procrastination support system

WHAT YOUR ANXIETY DOES: Anxiety helps you organize, plan for, and complete your tasks and meet your deadlines.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: Anxiety is your task-completing and deadline-meeting superhero. Listen to it, organize yourself, and focus on what needs doing.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What brought this feeling forward? What truly needs to be done?

In my Emotional Vocabulary List (you can download it for free), I give you many vocabulary words for specific emotions at three different levels of intensity. In the list, I refer to the subtle, gift-level presentation of emotions as their soft states. I call their more obvious presentations medium states, and when they’re highly activated, I call that their intense states.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that emotions exist in only three levels of intensity, because that’s silly — I’m just trying to bring a sense of ease and clarity to a subject that can be very confusing.

To help you understand these different intensities of emotion, I’ll put anxiety into the mix and run it through the three states.

Understanding the different intensities of anxiety

In its soft state, anxiety will simply help you be aware of (for instance) what you need to bring for an upcoming trip. You won’t feel obviously anxious; you’ll just be connected to anxiety’s capacity to help you prepare yourself for the future and intelligently complete your tasks.

In its medium state, your anxiety will be more insistent. You’ll feel more of a sense of a time-crunch, and you might feel some intense focus and energy. You might orient toward the future and bring a great deal of laser focus to what you need to do – you might even ignore things in the room that are not related to the tasks you need to complete. You’ll feel more activated in this state, and you might be a bit snappy if anyone gets in your way.

Note: if your anxiety includes dread, freezing, flooding, traumatic flashbacks, or a sense of doom, that’s not anxiety; it’s panic! Panic is a vital and vibrant emotion that literally saves your life, but it’s not anxiety. Knowing the difference between panic and anxiety is critical if you want to work well with either one of them.

Anxiety is a task-oriented emotion, and it has things to do! In the medium state of anxiety, you’ll feel a little bit riled up, but not uncomfortably so – and you’ll be able to identify that you’re working with the gifts of anxiety. In their medium states, your emotions are usually obvious to you and others.

In its intense state, your anxiety may be in a kind of feedback loop, which could be initiated by many things. Internally, it could be generated by an increase in adrenaline, cortisol, heart rate, or other physical conditions unrelated to task completion, but you’d feel those ramped-up intensities and think: “Oh, I’ve got a ton of work to do – on a tight deadline!!”

Externally, this intense level of anxiety could be initiated by a sudden and overwhelmingly close deadline, or by a flurry of things that need to be handled, but are actually impossible for one person to do.

In situations like these, your anxiety might set itself into a tizzy of activation. It might spin out and take you from room to room completing three tasks badly and four not at all.

You may orient so strongly to one thing that you miss other things in the room, and trip, or walk into a wall. Or your focus may get so overwhelmed that you can’t see or find that check that you just put down on the table, gah!!

Notice that all three levels of activation involve the exact same emotion – anxiety – but also notice that when we talk about anxiety, we usually only talk about its intense state (or we confuse it with panic), and we usually categorize anxiety as a thoroughly negative emotion (even though there are no negative emotions).

This mistake is understandable, however, because if you only identify anxiety in its intense form, then your distorted view of anxiety is actually sort of logical: An emotion that walks you into walls and makes you lose checks – that’s not helpful! It’s negative! But that’s not all that anxiety does, and it’s important to remember this:

All emotions exist at many different levels of activation and nuance, and all emotions are necessary.

Reframing your approach to anxiety

Book cover for Embracing AnxietyThe questions for anxiety are: “What brought this feeling forward? and What truly needs to be done?” The word truly is key, because your anxiety contains a great deal of energy. If you’re not focused, you could react to this energy in unhelpful ways and run yourself in circles or avoid your tasks and deadlines altogether.

If you can slow yourself down, identify the situation that brought your anxiety forward, and ask yourself what truly needs to be done, you can bring your full awareness to the situation, whether your anxiety is in a soft, medium, or intense state.

When any of your emotions (or the emotions of others) is in an intense state, it’s very tempting to turn away (or run away) and ignore them, but you can make significant improvements in your life if you can clearly identify your emotions and engage with them empathically.

When you can understand the reasons that emotions arise, you can help them do their proper work. This process of identifying, listening to, and responding to emotions so that they can support you – this is how you develop strong Emotion Regulation skills.

In my 2020 book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion, I explore this tragically misunderstood emotion and uncover its essential connection to motivation, organization, task-completion, and your ability to meet your deadlines skillfully. When you and your anxiety work well together, your life can change in remarkable ways.

Related post: What is your anxiety style?


8 Responses

  1. Alicia
    | Reply

    Karla, you have been my greatest teacher for the past couple of years – since one of my wonderful and wise friends suggested I read The Language of Emotions! I deal a lot with depression and anxiety – and I found the methods you discuss here for dealing with anxiety on my own years ago, so I know they work…unless you’re an emotional mess like I have been lately. I’m taking my meds and I’m working on my stuff even though it’s uncomfortable, but I still get myself into the occasional tizzy worrying about things – things I need to do, things I hope I did right, things I think I should do. It feels like anxiety, but is there something else in there, too? I’m still reading The Art of Empathy…maybe I’m just not there yet. But THANK YOU for you work!! I tell people about it in my blog all the time!!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Alicia! It sounds to me as if anxiety and shame are working together a bit here — so it’s not just the procrastination alert and planning for the future that anxiety helps you with, but it sounds like it’s also about checking on your behaviors and holding yourself to a standard, which is the work of shame.

      It might help to ask the questions for shame and see if there are any behavioral rules you’ve set for yourself that are hard to live up to. Remember that shame’s job is to help you live up to the standards you agree with. If you’ve got some standards in there that aren’t actually workable any longer, it’s time to burn your contracts with those standards and choose new standards that are more suitable to your current situation.

      Shame gets a lot of bad press, and as we all know, when shame is inauthentic or applied as a control mechanism by others, it can be gruesome. But it’s just doing its job, which is to help people live up to the standards they agree with. When people’s standards are self-chosen and self-respecting, then shame can do its job in a gentle and supportive way. Shame is delightful when it has delightful standards to watch over.

      I hope that helps!

  2. Alicia
    | Reply

    Thanks Karla! That makes a lot of sense, actually – I tend toward perfectionism…time to burn that contract! You’re my hero!

  3. Kerrie
    | Reply

    From Dr. Mary Lamia, before the “Necessity of Anxiety” section, to Dr. Lamia, followed by masculine pronouns, such as:
    “In the Forum interview with Dr. Lamia, a self-avowed procrastinator called in and explained that he could easily finish things that were pleasant, but that he really had to force himself to do things that felt like work, or to finish chores that he didn’t feel he was good at. He needed his anxiety to get to a fever pitch so that he could power his way through his procrastination and into unpleasant tasks.”
    I am a little confused. Is Dr. Lamia one person? A wife/husband team?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kerrie, and thanks for the question. That does look confusing, so I changed the second sentence to read “The caller.” I hope it’s clearer that I’m writing about a man who called in to ask Dr. Lamia a question on the Forum radio show. Thanks!

  4. Kerrie
    | Reply

    Yes, that change does help to clarify, and thank-you for writing about anxiety in your prolifically minable empathic style.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      ; )

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