Anxiety as a Superpower

Introduction

Nearly all human beings experience anxiety on a regular basis.  It can be expressed as future-oriented worry (“Will I pass this the test in 2 weeks?”), concern about how we are being perceived (“Everyone here thinks I’m stupid”), and/or fear that something might happen to us or loved one’s in the future (“What if my mom gets sick? How will I handle it?”).

Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience.  Clinical anxiety disrupts our ability to do things like go to work or school, negatively impacts our relationships with others, and can even limit our mobility in the world (e.g. being so anxious about what others think of you that you do not want to leave the house).  When anxiety impacts your daily functioning on a consistent basis, it might be time to seek professional help from a counselor.  This article will address non-clinical anxiety.

Ruminating and Perseverating

Anxiety often involves ruminating and perseverating on things that might happen in the future.  People may find it hard to “turn off” anxious thoughts about what may (“I might not get into college”) or may not happen (“I will never find a job”).  Dr. Wendy Suzuki a neuroscientist has studied anxiety and its pros and cons.  She has written several books encouraging individuals to reframe their anxiety as a superpower.

Anxiety as a Superpower

Dr. Suzuki makes the point that once we are able to “turn down our anxiety” to reasonable levels it serves as a powerful motivator for productivity.  Think about this, having anxiety about performing well on a test is normal.  Individuals studying for the test can have a few responses:  they can freeze (where their anxiety prevents them from processing and memorizing information), experience the need to flee [also known as a flight response]  (where their anxiety causes them to stop studying altogether or they do not show up to take the test) or fight (where they fight through their anxiety to study harder and use it as a motivator to study in the first place). 

When we are anxious our flight, fight, and freeze responses are engaged.  Anxiety is a survival mechanism meant to warn us of a threat so that we can be prepared to manage the threat.  Experiencing too much anxiety can be debilitating while experiencing too little anxiety can get in the way of our motivation to get things done.

Dr. Suzuki highlights then when we are able to mobilize our anxiety into action, it can be highly productive. She calls this “good anxiety.”  In this way, it can be viewed as a superpower.  She suggests that we accept that anxiety is part of life and learn to turn it down to lower levels where is can be harnessed into action.  She also recommends that we turn within to explore our own anxiety and try to understand where it comes from and what it might be telling us.  Finally, she suggests that we should individually figure how our anxiety can be a gift to ourselves and how to channel it in meaningful ways.

Anxiety Reduction Strategies

Turning our anxiety down can be accomplished by using anxiety reduction strategies such as:  exercise and movement, meditation and mindfulness, using deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, and understanding anxiety-producing thoughts (“I am never going to get this done”) and reality test them.  More anxiety reduction strategies can be found from Psychology Today at 50 Strategies to Beat Anxiety | Psychology Today.  The next time you are feeling overwhelmed by your anxiety, try the strategies discussed above and work on changing your perspective.  Thinking of your anxiety as a superpower just might allow you to and a use it in powerful ways.   

About Dr. Katherine Helm

Katherine is a Chicagoland native, professor, and psychologist who enthusiastically wants to help people have strong mental health and healthy, fulfilling relationships. Katherine is a licensed psychologist with over 24 years of experience working with adolescents, adults, couples and groups in multiple clinical settings including college counseling, psychiatric hospitals, community mental health, and private practice. She has authored multiple books on working with couples, sex education for high school and college students, and mental health issues in the African American community. Currently, she is the Director of a Clinical Mental Health Graduate Programs for Lewis University. You can learn more about her areas of expertise at: drkhelmconsulting.com

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