There are so many things in our lives designed to keep everyday anxiety at bay: meditation apps, deep breathing exercises, yoga, mindfulness retreats, CBD gummies. It’s like the modern wellness world has a giant (metaphorical) sign that says “be anything but anxious.” We’re conditioned to run away from it; just bury it and buy another guided journal instead.
But what if that fight or flight feeling isn’t all bad? What if it actually benefited us, especially in the workplace? You’ve probably experienced “good” anxiety without realizing it. Remember that time you were so nervous for that work presentation, and then you totally crushed it under all that pressure? Or you pulled an all nighter finishing that really important paper in college, and it landed you an A in the class? That blood-pumping adrenaline, palm-sweating anticipation, “it’s now or never” energy can actually be a productive secret weapon—you just need to know how to harness it (and when it’s no longer serving you).
We asked four mental health experts to share their tips.
Reframe and redefine this emotion
At its core, anxiety “activates us, sharpens our focus, helps us persist through obstacles and uncertainty, and motivates us to be more creative, innovative and socially connected,” says Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, the author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good For You (Even When it Feels Bad). And those are all good things, when anxiety is experienced in a small, healthy dose. “The problem isn’t that we feel too anxious. The problem is that we don’t know well enough how to feel anxious and put it to good use.”
Dr. Monica Johnson, a psychologist and the founder of Kind Mind Psychology in New York City, agrees: “Anxiety isn't inherently good or bad, it simply exists. The reason we assign labels of good or bad to an emotion is based on our reaction to it. Your perception of the physiological sensations of an emotion make a huge difference. If you had two people waiting in line to get on a roller coaster and asked them to make note of what they were feeling in their body, they could essentially describe the same thing (think: increased heart rate, inability to sit still). But if you asked them to label the emotion, one might say they are ‘super excited’ and the other might say they are ‘scared.’ This is all based on their perception.”
Get out of your head—and into your body
“Take some deep breaths to activate your parasympathetic nervous system,” advises Fanny Tristan, a NYC-based psychotherapist and the founder of Restority Space. “Deep breathing reminds your body to calm down and think. This is a tool in your mental toolbox you can access anywhere to provide your body immediate relief. If you need more than deep breathing, engage your body more. Take a walk, do a quick stretch or work out routine to release all that nervous energy keeping your body tense.”
It might seem silly at first, but laughing is also really helpful at decreasing your anxiety, says Dr. Wendy Suzuki, the author of Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion. Get lunch with your work BFF to get your mind off of what’s making you anxious at work (like, say, a 1-on-1 with your boss)—trust, it’ll make you feel so much better.
Give yourself a reality check
“A question I like to ask myself when I'm in these moments is: ‘Who is going to die right now if I don't complete this task right this second?’ says Tristan. “I know that sounds extreme, but it's an extreme response that confronts the extreme, all or nothing, and likely, unrealistic thoughts that got you in this state of panic in the first place. Assess whether these negative beliefs causing your anxiety are realistic or helpful. If not, what is another perspective you can take? Assess what is and is not in your control and redirect it to your next action steps. One of the most important things you have control over is your perspective. Thoughts are not facts.”
Unpack why you’re feeling this way
There’s a reason your intrusive thoughts sound a little like this before a big presentation: What if my boss doesn't like it? What if I screw up in front of the board? What if I forget something? “We are worried about things that we care about,” says Dr. Suzuki. And that’s not a bad thing! Instead of mulling over all of the things that could go wrong, be proactive. If your concern is about what other people will think, ask a colleague (whose opinion you really trust) to give you feedback beforehand. If you’re worried about forgetting something, spend the next hour making sure you have all of the background and writing some notes down on a notebook that you can keep nearby during the actual presentation.
Show yourself some empathy
In those moments where your anxiety spikes and that self-doubt creeps in, remind yourself all of the reasons why you got hired in the first place. Was it your super-sharp organizational skills? Your can-do spirit? Your persuasiveness? Remind yourself that it is totally normal to be feeling this way—and pretty much everyone with a pulse gets nervous before big moments at work. “To do this is a little act of compassion that comes from empathy around your own anxiety,” says Dr. Suzuki.
Understand all of the benefits
When all else fails, turn to biology. “When we’re in the throes of anxiety, levels of the hormone oxytocin, sometimes called the ‘love hormone,’ spike,” explains Dr. Dennis-Tiwary. “Oxytocin primes us to connect to others.” Another benefit of anxiety? “Research shows that experiencing a period of anxiety increases creative fluency—the quantity and quality of ideas as well as the ability to persist in problem solving when obstacles arise.” And finally, you can experience a deeper sense of personal fulfillment and purpose, thanks to anxiety. “Purpose refers to the values and priorities that make us who we are and give our life meaning,” adds Dr. Dennis-Tiwary. “That’s why it’s crucial to channel the benefits of anxiety, like persistence and hope, toward purpose.”
But know when it becomes unhelpful
This is a little something called the “anxiety doom spiral,” according to Tristan. “It’s the act of going through a series of negative beliefs in your mind that you are convinced will likely happen. It can make you feel physically frozen and unable to figure out your next move, which will lead to additional feelings like sadness and hopelessness.” Adds Dr. Johnson: “Anxiety encourages you to be alert, but we aren't meant to be firing on all cylinders 24/7. If your anxiety is too extreme it will wear you down.”
PSA: This advice is for those who are not clinically diagnosed with anxiety disorder—just those who experience it situationally. If your anxiety starts affecting your ability to socialize and make connections with others, go about your daily routine or do the things you once loved, then it’s time to seek professional help.