Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki says that 90 percent of individuals suffer from what she calls “everyday anxiety.” This condition is different from clinical disorders, and manifests instead in ways that we are all familiar with: difficulty focusing, discomfort in social situations, or sleep interrupted by nighttime worries about family, finances, or the future.
While this everyday anxiety does require coping strategies, Suzuki reminds us that one of these strategies involves not trying to stop anxiety, but rather turning it into something that serves us. Fortunately, she has some tips for achieving this.
Adopt the “activist mindset”
We’ve all been told that resilience is key to success, but this term can be vague and difficult to channel into our everyday lives. Suzuki recommends instead adopting an “activist mindset” which thinks about which emotional traits and previous experiences can provide you with the insights, confidence, or creativity to tackle the current challenge. You can use the power of previous hurdles to meet the next speed bump with confidence and determination. For example, she helped one client manage his anxiety about public speaking by reflecting on how he had learned to conquer his financial anxieties.
Pay attention to negative feelings
Sweeping things under the rug doesn’t help anyone, and will likely lead to exacerbated anxiety down the line. You don’t have to be optimistic and happy all the time. Giving negative emotions and anxiety the attention they deserve as valid human emotions will help you not only move past them but also appreciate the good times more. Suzuki writes, “The negative aspect is what’s protective—it’s critical. Those feelings are there to help direct us to what we value. We want to feel them and learn from them, rather than being beaten down by them.”
Turn worries into to-do lists
Anxiety often manifests in a set of “what-ifs” in our minds. What if I get in front of the room and make a fool of myself? What if I can’t handle this responsibility? What if I offended someone by voicing my opinion? Suzuki recommends turning these what-ifs into tangible items on your checklist. Anxiety about expressing your opinion becomes “spend time researching this subject more so I feel confident in sharing my thoughts.” This is especially effective in managing climate anxiety as climate action and personal initiatives have been shown to help mitigate these uneasy feelings.
Get off your phone
Does being on your phone make you more anxious, or does anxiety drive you to pick up your phone as a security blanket? This ‘chicken and the egg’ situation likely goes in both directions, but the mounting anxiety of notifications, social media, and constant stimulus isn’t helping your anxiety. Shift your attention towards productive activities instead like journaling, meditation, connecting with a good friend, making art, or cooking yourself a comforting meal.
Seek empathy from your anxiety
Anxiety can actually be a powerful tool for helping you build empathy and compassion. Thinking about your own anxiety, especially social anxiety, can help you better support and relate to those around you. For example, if you experienced anxiety as the new person at work, you can make sure to reach out to new hires so they feel more welcome in the same situation you were once in. Plus, doing things for others relieves anxiety by releasing dopamine.
It’s very unlikely that we can rid our lives of anxiety altogether, but these five steps will help you turn your anxiety into something more productive and empowering. In her new book, “Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion,” she writes, “Like a sailboat needs wind in order to move, the brain-body needs an outside force to urge it to grow, adapt, and not die.”