I have always been an anxious person. I’ve had panic attacks since I was a teenager and have spent a lot of time learning ways to deal with anxiety of varying levels. (My Top Ten list is at the bottom of this article for anyone interested.) I got my degree in psychology — partially motivated by wanting to understand my own experience — and started a Master in Social Work (MSW) degree with the intention of eventually becoming a therapist.
During my teens and early 20s, I put a lot of time into wanting to rid myself of anxiety. I felt like it prevented me from doing so much and I didn’t want to miss out anymore because of something that seemed so illogical. I started saying Yes to anything I got invited to. I even tried to convince myself I could be an extrovert. (For anyone who doesn’t know me: this is laughable.)
Halfway through my MSW, I had a revelation: what if my anxiety is actually not such a terrible thing to have? What if, instead of rejecting it, I tried to embrace it for something useful?
I can hear all the folks who are debilitated by anxiety scoffing but bear with me for a second.
My reaction to this realization that I didn’t need to reject a huge part of who I am anymore was swift. I dropped out of school, where I kept being told my job was not to fix other people’s problems (even though I really wanted to fix everything and then organize it into neat piles.) Instead, I started coding and quickly transitioned into tech, where I was told I could get paid to fix all the problems! Or, at least the ones I was assigned.
Part of the lead up to this jump came from a personal tool I had started utilizing a few years prior. When I was enrolled in my undergrad, I was working almost full-time and was a full-time student. I’d go home and be wide awake at night because I was so stressed at not being a perfect student or a perfect employee. Or a perfect friend. And so on.
Fed up with this cycle, I started telling myself, “Turn this feeling into something productive.” I would get out of bed and paint to use up some of my mental energy. I didn’t particularly enjoy this painting because I really just wanted to sleep, but at some point I’d stop, look back at what I had done, and be proud of my work. And then I’d fall asleep.
This pattern got me into the habit of seeing my anxiety as a tool for something. It usually wasn’t a tool for my Plan A goal (being social at a party, sleeping a full night, etc). It could, however, be a tool for a Plan B. Usually, it was a really useful tool, too.
Then I started to notice this pattern at work.
More than any other area of my life, being an anxious person has been undeniably helpful for me professionally. In every job I’ve had, I’ve found moments to be grateful for my anxiety. This is probably because on the job — and when it’s managed — it gets called my “attention to detail” or “thoroughness”. Those are good traits. They even go on my resume as something to brag about.
Anytime I get positive reviews for catching bugs before they became problems, booking schedules in a way that avoided future conflicts, or approaching decision-making with risk management at its core, I can turn to my anxiety and say, “Hey, thanks! I don’t think I would have noticed that if it weren’t for you.”
This approach to finding a positive spin for anxiety is called Cognitive Reframing. It means taking something you believe to be true and challenge that belief to create a new one.
- My flight is delayed (annoying) but I got to finish my book before boarding (yay!)
- I can’t sleep (so tired) but now I have time to paint (productive!)
- I wanted to meet more people at the party I just got home from (goal not achieved) but I got to catch up with the friend I knew there (different goal achieved!)
All the initial examples I could think of for reframing ended with “but I got to finish my book” so hopefully you get the picture with those.
More broadly speaking, reframing anxiety in my professional life has allowed me to see that it has been one of my keys to success thus far. It causes me to think a few (thousand) steps ahead. It makes me want to write thorough documentation to avoid misunderstandings. When I was in management, it made me want to be organized in a way that felt organized for others too. It makes me aware of my coworkers experiences. Lastly, it makes me accountable to my commitments but also makes me leave jobs when my time there feels “done”.
(Let’s just say my internal alarm bells are loud.)
It should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway: in most ways suffering with anxiety sucks and reframing it doesn’t take this feeling away. Period. It’s exhausting and sometimes means none of your Plan A list gets done, and you really did need to get it done.
One thing I’ve learned, though, is that a lot of anxiety can be about having it in the first place. When the goal is to stop having anxiety, it can feel like you’re going against the grain all the time. In my experience, finding a way to enjoy (or tolerate) it can actually reduce it too. When I decide it’s genuinely okay to stay up all night even though I have to be up early, I tend to fall asleep earlier than when I look at the clock and start worrying about getting enough sleep. Thinking of anxiety as having a useful purpose has actually reduced it as well because I don’t feel ashamed for having it in the first place.
That said, utilizing anxiety for something positive or productive also means that you’re able to manage it in the first place, which isn’t always the case. I’ve learned a lot of ways to manage or use my anxiety or internal “excitement” but sometimes it just doesn’t work. But then I get to watch a lot of The Office.
There’s a quote from Sarah Wilson on this that I love: “… that’s my challenge: to use the anxious fire to ignite things, but then be able to dampen it to keep things burning steadily.” You do your best to dampen it, but first you have to learn how.
Over the years I’ve been able to collect quite a few tools in the metaphorical toolbox I mostly wish I didn’t need. I’ll end with some that have been most helpful.
- The basics: a healthy daily balance with food, water, sleep, and movement. Whatever that looks like for you. Easier said than done but it’s necessary.
- Talk to someone you trust for support. I like to ask first if I can talk about my anxiety before launching into it so I’m not just giving my anxiety to them to hold onto. Not a great gift for a tired receiver.
- Just say out loud “I’m having anxiety.” It’s not enough to say it in your mind. Get out of your thoughts and name it. Also try “I’m excited.” This is another type of reframing. Ultimately we’re trying to transition from a negative feeling to a more positive one. It’s a lot easier to go from anxiety to positive excitement than anxiety to calm, though.
- Write. Don’t think about what you’re writing and don’t read it afterwards. Just write without judgement.
- Meditate. Sit for even a minute, and focus on your breathing without judgement. You’ll get distracted because everyone does; just come back.
- Walk. Don’t worry about goals, like how far or the intensity. Just get outside and go for a walk.
- Interrupt your anxiety when you can to stop the spiral. Call a friend and ask them how their day is going. Get outside of your own worries and usually they’re not waiting for you with the same intensity when you’re done.
- Read. Same idea as above.
- Talk to a professional if you have the resources for it or there are free services in your area. Sometimes our loved ones don’t know how to help and might not have the emotional availability to help anyway. Find someone you connect with who can help you build your own toolbox.
- Cancel your plans. Sometimes you can’t repurpose or reduce what you’re feeling. You tried — no judgement — but it’s not happening today.
And with all of these, remember to be kind to yourself. Reframing something negative might feel impossible at first but it is a muscle that can be strengthened. Changing our language about our experiences can change how we experience them in the first place.