6 Ways to Use Anxiety as a Source for Growth
Stop viewing anxiety as a problem and instead view it as a gift for healing.
Posted December 6, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- The emotional suffering caused by anxiety can be turned into an opportunity for understanding and healing.
- Instead of suppressing anxiety through avoidance, distraction, and numbing strategies, one can use it as a compass.
- Approaching anxiety requires understanding one's core conflict and taking action on that insight to create change.
Anxiety is a feeling of alarm, worry, or fear associated with a threat that isn’t always actually present (Robinson et al., 2013). Ultimately, anxiety is incongruous with trust as it implies pending danger through phantom emotional or physical threats.
Anxiety operates as a messenger. In primordial times, its directive to be on high alert was adaptive when humans were navigating dangerous terrain and predators. However, the contemporary notion of threat has shifted. Instead, those same panic-inducing symptoms of anxiety become attached to modern fears (e.g., Do I have the right job? Did I pick the right partner? What if I made a mistake?). That ancient threat-radar system that once ensured survival by prompting action now causes paralysis through anxiety.
A System Update for Obsolete Programming
A distinction must be made between symptoms of anxiety and the meaning attributed to those symptoms. This involves rewiring the interpretation of anxiety symptoms from life-threatening to instead understanding them as simple indicators of underlying conflicts.
1. Label it.
Anxiety thrives on absolutes. All-or-nothing. Black-or-white. This creates the illusion of safety through certainty. If there’s an absolute right and wrong—a path without pain could be paved (Paul, 2019).
But this artificial dichotomy is created for internal reassurance and isn’t an accurate reflection of the shades of grey that exist in the world. Instead, this distortion is created to maintain an impression of safety, which tends to do more harm than good. It’s far more adaptive to expend that energy accepting uncertainty than creating rigid conditions and an unrealistic world where uncertainty doesn’t exist.
Anxiety sells a story of a correct and incorrect choice. The "right" choice will bring infinite happiness, and the "wrong" choice will bring pain. This primes the notion that the key to happiness and pain lies outside of your control instead of trusting your own wisdom.
The ultimate goal is to not only embrace uncertainty but learn to accept and live with it (the good and bad aspects of people, situations, and circumstances) as necessary conditions in life. Whenever you find yourself thinking in absolutes or extremes (e.g., always, never)—label that you’ve been cast under the spell of anxiety.
2. Address it.
Chronic anxiety causes you to abandon your emotional experience, leading to a state of detachment. Instead, think of anxiety as a messenger that something requires your attention.
Next time you feel anxious, become curious about your inner experience. This requires a continuous internal check-in.
Usually, anxious thoughts are simply the courier for a greater message that needs to be delivered. For example, if you simply look at the surface thought (e.g., anxiety about achievement) your worry will drive you toward the solution of achieving the next goal on the horizon.
Simply acting on anxiety without reflection will leave you in a loop always seeking the next win. Instead, if you pause and pull the red thread of this belief further, you may discover underlying issues around self-worth and insecurity, which you are trying to resolve through achievement. Instead of falling into this vicious cycle of relentless achievement, identify the anxiety and how it shows up for you (e.g., where do you feel it in your body? What thoughts are connected to it? And most importantly, how are those thoughts linked to your sense of self?).
3. Stop resisting and embrace anxiety.
Meet anxiety with compassion. One way to do this is through the Buddhist practice of Tonglen (Chödrön, 2019; Paul, 2019). This is when you breathe in the "unwelcome" (e.g., pain, insecurity, inadequacy) and breathe out the "desired" (e.g., relief, contentment, fulfillment). This practice reverses the habitual avoidance of pain and rewires how to process discomfort by demonstrating a capability to hold and manage difficult emotions.
Imagining oneself breathing in discomfort allows connection to the universal experience of pain in the world. That connection generates unity and strength, which is incompatible with the isolation and helplessness that is maintained by anxiety. Detaching from that fixed position ultimately allows for transformation.
Exploring anxiety with curiosity can teach you something about yourself. Ignoring it will allow it to remain a shadow in your day, arising as intrusive thoughts and consequent physical symptoms.
4. Break down intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts are recurring, unsolicited, and persistent thoughts that cause suffering and take you out of the present. Their mission is to be believed as absolute truths and cause doubt. At the core, intrusive thoughts are a mental addiction (Kelly & Kahn, 1994). They operate as a mechanism to prevent you from accessing more vulnerable feelings. Intrusive thoughts work under the pretense that if you were to follow their orders, then you could avoid the suffering and vulnerability inherent to being human.
Learn to interrupt intrusive thoughts by widening the space between thoughts and your response to them (Frankl, 1985). What you focus on will propagate. Googling, perseverating, talking with friends, and seeking reassurance only feeds the fear, allowing it to sprout.
5. Learn to interpret intrusive thoughts as symbols.
First, name the anxious thought. This allows for cognitive diffusion (Clark, 2005). Because observing requires a witness, a separation forms between the thought and yourself. With distance comes perspective to dismantle anxiety and reduce its credibility.
Once you have distance, allow yourself to experience the underlying emotion. Usually, there is an underlying feeling of incompetence, self-doubt, helplessness, or unhappiness. These are universal human feelings. They cannot be avoided. Instead, sit with the emotion and consider how anxiety might be protecting you from this pain through the notion that you could resolve it through perseverance or action.
For example, you might feel insecure about your appearance, so you spend hours following a rigid exercise plan. Reacting to surface-level anxiety will keep you on a hamster wheel as the underlying feeling of deficiency won’t be resolved through external appearance—it can only be managed internally. The more you suppress, control, or manipulate external circumstances, the larger these feelings grow and the more energy they consume. It’s far more efficient to accept the emotion, experience it, and let it pass.
6. Check in with yourself regularly.
Start to conceptualize your emotional experience as a river. You could either experience what comes down the stream until it passes or you could avoid uncomfortable emotions until they accumulate and create an obstruction. To experience emotions as they come, you must believe you are safe to face whatever pain comes from them and, in doing so, experience healing on the other side.
If you refuse to experience an emotion directly, it will only return in other ways (Paul, 2019). This necessitates checking in with yourself, processing how you’re feeling, and responding to it. You could do this through journaling, tuning into your body, or setting a check-in reminder on your phone. These are ways of getting comfortable emotionally attuning to yourself and making accurate and descriptive self-assessments.
Sitting with an emotion does not require an action or immediate solution. Instead, create space for it, become willing to experience it, and eventually process and move past it. Anxiety takes up energy. That energy consumes space in your mind and body. Instead of fighting against it, focusing on anxiety allows it to transform, fall away, and open up space for more.
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
Kelly, A. E., & Kahn, J. H. (1994). Effects of suppression of personal intrusive thoughts. Journal of personality and social psychology, 66(6), 998.
Pema Chödrön. (2019, October 25). How to Practice Tonglen. Lion’s Roar. https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-tonglen/
Paul, S. (2019). The wisdom of anxiety: How worry and intrusive thoughts are gifts to help you heal. Sounds True.
McKnight, D. (2012). Tonglen Meditation’s effect on levels of compassion and self-compassion: A pilot study and instructional guide (Doctoral dissertation, Thesis Completed as Part of the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program. Available online at: https://www. upaya. org/uploads/pdfs/McKnightTonglenThesis. pdf).
Robinson, O. J., Vytal, K., Cornwell, B. R., & Grillon, C. (2013). The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 203.