From Enemy to Ally: How Anxiety Is Meant To Serve You
One of the stories I still remember from my childhood is the old fable of the ant and the grasshopper.
In the tale, the grasshopper enjoyed playing music during the long summer days, and couldn’t understand why the ant insisted on toiling so hard to carry ears of corn when there was such an abundance of food all around them. But then winter arrived, and the grasshopper found himself dying of starvation. By the time he realized the importance of storing food for the winter, it was too late.
Many spiritual philosophies and self-help gurus espouse the virtues of living in the moment - and they’re not wrong! The more we can be fully present in our lives, the more fully we will live them.
But these philosophies go sideways when they tell us that worrying always causes suffering and should be avoided without exception. Because if we truly didn’t worry about anything at all, we’d be no different than the grasshopper who dies of hunger when the winter finally arrives.
Most of us are only aware of anxiety when our heart starts to race and we become mired in worry and self-doubt. It makes sense to denounce it when it makes our life miserable. But anxiety didn’t evolve in us just to be a giant pain in the ass! In truth, we evolved to feel anxiety because it is essential to our health and wellbeing.
Anxiety is the aspect of our fear that looks to the future, anticipating potential problems and dangers.
The reason why anxiety gives us tons of nervous energy is because it evolved to move us into action to avoid or prevent those future problems. Our distant ancestors would have started to worry in the fall if they didn’t have enough food stored up to last the winter (just like the ant!), and that anxiety would have motivated them to do what was needed to make up the shortfall.
In today’s world, you might feel anxiety around an upcoming presentation at work, motivating you to get started on it early enough to have time to fully prepare for it. If you didn’t feel any anxiety at all, you’d be far less likely to give a high quality presentation.
Hopefully you’re starting to see some of the ways anxiety helps you in your life, and why it’s an important emotion to feel (at least a little bit). It becomes a problem when it gets excessive, either growing out of proportion to what the situation actually calls for, or when it becomes too strong to be able to effectively handle in the moment.
However, even when extreme anxiety is warranted in certain situations (such as when your car breaks down on the highway on the way to a crucial job interview), it still can be challenging to deal with.
So how can we keep our anxiety manageable, so that it is helpful rather than disruptive?
As with any emotion, the best way to make anxiety happy (so it chills out!) is by listening to what it is telling us, and taking the actions it is calling for. In the example of the work presentation, we could double-check our slides, take more time to practice it, create a checklist of all the supplies we’ll need to bring with us, set our alarm a bit earlier that morning, etc.
Anxiety loves it when we get organized, and it wants us to be prepared. To Do lists are one of best things to help our anxiety to relax, and they work even better if we start taking action to complete those To Dos, one by one.
So whenever you start feeling those nerves, write a list! And if you already have a list, write more lists! (I’m a firm believer that you can never have too many lists).
The best place to start is to simply get everything in your head onto a piece of paper. Think of it as a giant “brain dump”. Often the very act of getting things out of your head will start to help you relax.
Once you see all of your thoughts there in front of you, then you can organize them into separate lists by putting an x by everything that needs to be done immediately, a * by things that can be delegated to others, a + by things that can wait, and so on.
Another way you can calm your anxiety down is by organizing and decluttering your personal space.
Have you ever tried to work surrounded by piles of stuff, and felt that you just couldn’t think clearly? This is because our anxiety interprets chaos and complexity around us as yet more things that need to be dealt with, so it amps up accordingly.
The first step in decluttering and organizing your environment is rather obvious, if not very fun: cleaning up. Do the dishes, pick up dirty clothes, and put things away where they’re supposed to go.
Once that’s done, look for things that habitually lie around out in the open (claiming every available surface as their own), and see if you can’t find special places for them to go as well.
Resist the temptation to simply stuff things into the nearest drawer, as not being able to find them later might provoke more anxiety in the long run! But at the same time, don’t feel like you have to do a full-on re-organization of all the storage spaces in your house in order to get more organized and tidy.
If you expect perfection or turn this into a massive project, it’ll have the opposite effect on your anxiety, so don’t think too hard about it - just get started. Every little bit helps! And the more Zen your space becomes, the more calm you’ll feel.
With all of that said, keep in mind that your goal shouldn’t be to never feel anxiety, ever.
Now that you understand the true purpose of anxiety, you’ll know that it arises for a reason - and you’ll know what to do when it shows up. In this way, anxiety can become a valuable ally (dare I say a friend?), by letting us know when our preparedness or organization is lacking, and motivating us to do something about it.
I believe that the people who accomplish the most and are most “on top of things” in their lives, are those who’ve learned to work with their anxiety in this way. And we’re all capable of it!
Whether we tend to be resistant to anxiety like the grasshopper (that’s me! a natural-born procrastinator), or whether we tend to feel our anxiety a little too keenly, we all stand to benefit from working with our anxiety effectively.
However, if your anxiety is out of balance, it may take some additional work to get it where it needs to be to truly serve you in your life. In just a few weeks I’ll be sharing a brand new, free DIY Guide to Calming Anxiety, that will explain the most common reasons why anxiety so often gets too big for its britches and starts acting like an enemy rather than an ally.
This guide will also include a series of quizzes to help you assess why anxiety might be problematic for you, along with strategies to overcome them. I’ll be sharing this in The Unlocked Heart newsletter as a free download as soon as it comes out, so if you don’t want to miss it, you can sign up for my newsletter here.
In the meantime, give these ideas for calming anxiety a try, and let me know how it goes!
May your anxiety become the ally it was truly meant to be.