Is Anxiety a Totally Bad Thing?
I used to tell a one-liner that went like this:
Anything worth doing is worth getting anxious about.
People thought this was funny and apt, but over time, the idea faded from my mind. Which is too bad, because I could have used that rueful insight during COVID.
That’s when my anxiety (which has always been high) pinged right off the charts. And the fact that millions of other people were having the same experience didn’t help. I hated the jumpiness and near panic, and was sure that this was a very bad thing.
But is it?
In a sense, anxiety—which is baked into the most ancient part of our brains—is our birthright. It’s uncomfortable, yes. But it’s also part of who we are as human beings, so maybe it has something useful to offer us.
That’s the message of a 2021 Harpers Bazaar UK article that includes this idea:
…according to Dr Wendy Suzuki, the professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University, these feelings do not have to be unhelpful or damaging to our wellbeing. In fact, if we can re-cast them, they could hold the secret to workplace success. [emphasis mine]
In the same article, psychotherapist and workplace anxiety expert Charlotte Fox Weber says,
The fact is, we should be a little anxious at work. It is what keeps us motivated and focused. But the key is the dosage. We want to be eager to do well, not actually panicked. [emphasis mine]
First, You Have to Manage It
Arghhh! Does that mean I should grin and bear anxiety that falls short of panic?
Absolutely not. (Because, how much self-medicating with ice cream can one woman do?)
So I’m planning to spend some quality time with an article written for MDAnderson called “7 anxiety hacks: How to manage stress and worry”.
In it, author Cynthia DeMarco offers seven quick anxiety-reduction techniques that you can apply most places and times. These include:
- Deep breathing,
- Simple stretches,
- Guided imagery, and
- Listening to music.
To these, I would add some of my own faves, like:
- Positive self-talk,
- Beating up my Nasty Little Voice, and
- Remembering reality.
The thing about these admirable and practical techniques, though, is that they don’t get rid of anxiety for good.
Like the proverbial bad penny, or the 10 pounds you lost in January, anxiety has a way of creeping back in.
So we need to find a way to live with it that isn’t totally negative and fraught.
Learning to Love Anxiety
While you may never come to actually love it, here are five things that anxiety gives us, all of which can strengthen our public speaking:
1. ENERGY: The adrenalin that fight-flight-or-freeze releases in our bodies can literally power our public speaking. Adrenalin prepares our bodies to act, and since public speaking is a physical activity, that energy can come in handy.
2. FOCUS: Have you ever noticed that the jittery, edge-of-your-seat feeling we associate with anxiety can equally well describe anticipation? Lots of experts suggest that, by labeling that feeling “anticipation” instead of “anxiety,” we can capture the increased focus and motivation that come with eagerly looking forward to something.
3. SENSITIVITY: A familiar element of anxiety is hypervigilance, defined by WebMD.com as “the elevated state of constantly assessing potential threats around you.” But hyper-awareness also confers a greater positive sensitivity, so that it’s easier to read the room and assess other people’s moods, attitudes, and intentions. These are good things for a public speaker to be able to do!
4. STRESS TOLERANCE: Who’s better at handling stress, the person who isn’t invested, or the person who passionately wants to contribute and is used to fighting off anxiety to do it? If we can believe the old expression, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” people who struggle with anxiety are strong, indeed!
5. EMPATHY: Grappling with anxiety can help you appreciate other people’s struggles, and make it easier to connect with audiences—who are just other struggling human beings. Plus, as a bonus, if helping people be better is your thing, you’ll be better at doing that when you truly understand what it takes to overcome.
Having said all of that, I would still pay good money for you to take my anxiety on a long walk off a short pier and make it go away for good.
But since that isn’t going to happen, I’ll continue to resist getting sucked into it, “graciously” accept that I’m stuck with it, and direct it toward useful ends whenever I can.
So, Is Anxiety a True Superpower?
Or does the Superpower really live in us, and just get attached to everything we grapple with?
Either way, we have to live with the answer; so how about if…