Disclaimer: This post is talking about the type of anxiety that all humans get. If you have an anxiety disorder and are struggling, seek help your primary care provider and especially from a counsellor you trust and feel comfortable working with. If you are in the midst of a high level of general anxiety, it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to differentiate between useful anxiety and the disorder. In this case, this article may not be helpful and may trigger anxiety for people who are not yet at a stage to be able to discuss it casually. Take care of yourself.
Anxiety is a part of the normal human experience. It is that moment when your stomach drops. When you feel like something is wrong but you don’t quite know what. It is that moment when you feel uncomfortable in your skin. You shift your weight, you reposition, you fidget and squirm. You feel flushed and warm, or the blood drains from your face and your hair stands on end.
This type of anxiety is a clue. Something isn’t working and your body is YELLING at you that something needs to change. You can use that. You can use anxiety to improve your life.
There are two types of anxiety
I want to make it very clear that anxiety disorders should never be ignored or dismissed. People with anxiety disorders deserve to have access to appropriate treatment. That treatment could include medications and it should always include therapy. People with anxiety disorders deserve to be treated with kindness and empathy.
It’s hard, I think, to know what it is like to have that kind of anxiety. Since one type of anxiety is a part of being human, people think that those with anxiety just need to “get over it”. But it’s not that simple. An anxiety disorder can turn the world into something unrecognizable. It can take over other emotions too. When my anxiety was at its worst, I lost the ability to feel excited about anything – because it felt like anxiety. I didn’t know what was a real threat – something to be avoided – or a challenge to embrace.
You can only use anxiety to improve if your anxiety is telling you something true. So people with an active anxiety disorder can’t use anxiety in this way. Not until anxiety is no longer the mind’s default response to everything. First, the anxiety disorder must be treated.
In my experience, the real healing from an anxiety disorder came when I was able to use the anxious feelings. When I could recognize that there was a message I needed to hear.
Where does anxiety come from?
I’ve been reading a book called Focus, by Daniel Goleman. I recently read a section describing the circuitry for intuition and gut feelings. 1
The saying, “You only use 10% of your brain,” isn’t true. All parts of your brain are working. It might be true, though, that we only have conscious awareness of 10% of what our brain is doing. The rest of your brain controls your heart rate, body temperature, and the like. This 90% is also where your unconscious processing occurs.
Our brains are pattern-seeking machines. The vast majority of that pattern recognition comes from the unconscious part of the brain. Of course, it can’t speak directly to the conscious part of the brain. So the way it communicates to you (that part that can think thoughts), is by directing attention, gut feelings and intuition.
That insight from the book led me to another insight. “Normal” anxiety – the kind that all humans experience – that is part of your intuition. It is a signal from the unconscious part of your mind. It has noticed that something isn’t working, and wants you to know about it NOW.
How can you harness anxiety?
The first piece of the puzzle is, as always, awareness. Notice the anxiety. This step is also part of the therapy for people with anxiety – to be able to notice when it begins and what things trigger it.
Noticing anxiety isn’t always easy. In part, that is because there are different ways and anxiety can show up in your body. Some examples of sensations that could be anxiety are:
- a sinking feeling in your stomach
- a feeling in your chest – tight, hot, or painful
- cramping in your abdomen
- your head feeling hot and flushed
- a ringing in your ears or the sound of radio static in your mind
- a cold sensation, with the blood draining from your face
- a tingling sensation throughout your body or in a specific location
And to make it even more confusing, it can show up differently for you at times.
The second part is to consider what happened in the moment before you felt anxious. What were you doing, where were you, who else was there, what were you thinking about? It can be very helpful to pull out your journal and to write it down. This is also a therapeutic technique for treating anxiety – a thought record.
Third, make note of some ideas of what your anxiety, your intuition, your unconscious mind wants you to know. What could this feeling be trying to tell you? How might you change what you are doing?
Fourth, test your ideas. Pick the most promising idea or simply pick at random, and try out your idea. Test your idea on the small scale, of course. If one of your ideas is that you could quit your job, you should probably talk that out with someone first. Especially at the beginning of your journey of using anxiety as a tool.
Finally, circle back. Now that you’ve tried something, how did it work? How do you feel now?
Some examples of using anxiety
I was inspired to write this post because, over the past month, I’ve been doing exactly this. I’ve been listening to the anxious feelings and going through those 5 steps. Here are a couple of experiences I’ve had recently.
I was creating an agenda for a work meeting and I started feeling anxious that there wouldn’t be enough time for all the items on the agenda. I looked at previous agendas, I tried adding up how long each item would take. I tried rearranging the agenda. Suddenly, once I did that, the anxiety melted away and I felt a sense of rightness. This was the first seed of this article that you are reading.
I had assumed in all of this that I was simply anxious about chairing the meeting. I assumed that the anxiety was about feeling inadequate, feeling I wasn’t good enough to chair. But when the anxiety melted away, I realized that it was an intuitive signal.
Another day, I was looking at the tasks that I wanted to finish before the end of the week. I started scheduling them in my calendar (this is a productivity technique known as time-boxing). I started to feel uneasy, a mild feeling of anxiety. Remembering the experience I had writing the agenda, I paused to think about what my intuition might be telling me. I rearranged the order and felt that same sense of relief.
The final example I want to share is something that I think a lot of people have trouble with – using their smartphone.
How often have you looked at your phone, planning to play a game or go on social media for just a few minutes. Only to look up and realize that you’ve been staring at your screen for 30 minutes, an hour, or more? Me too. It is something that I want to get better about.
Last night, I was doing exactly that, playing one of those casual games. I started to fidget and shift my weight on the couch. I realized that I was feeling anxious. I remembered that it has been a reliable signal lately. So I put my phone down. My journal was close by, so I reached over and opened it up. As soon as I started writing, I realized exactly what was going on.
I wanted to cut back on screen time, yet I was doing the exact opposite. I ended up having a lovely night. I went for a walk, cooked supper, and finished off the night with my favourite show, a bit of knitting, and cuddles with my puppy.
Anxiety can be a serious problem for people amid an anxiety disorder. But it can also be a tool. Your intuition, your unconscious pattern recognition, can alert you when something isn’t working.
Once you become aware of the signals your body is sending, you can use that to approach your challenges differently. In small decisions and large, anxiety can let you know that what you are doing isn’t working.
Have you ever used anxiety to improve your life? Let me know in the comments below!
Until next time, be good.2
You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.
If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.
- The book is written using academic language and phrasing. So, perhaps ironically, it requires a good deal of focus to read and get value from. That said, it has been validating for me to learn that what I believe about intuition is true.
- I was a teenager when I first remember my mom saying, “Be good,” when I left the house. When I left for university, and to this day, she ends most of our conversations in the same way.
Yes, she meant, ‘I love you’ and ‘stay out of trouble.’ But she also meant, ‘do what’s right.’ Follow what you know to be true for you. Learn from life and how to do things better.
Now that I’m trying to understand and evolve my philosophy of life; Now that I’m trying to help other people strive toward living the good life; I want to share that phrase, “Be good,” with you. Be good. Live the good life in whatever way you define that for yourself.