Photo by Kamran Chaudhry 

Ok, so we all know that everyone experiences some level of anxiety. 

For some of us it might be as simple as that nagging little thing in the back of our mind that tells us we’ve missed something important. 

For others it might be more  like a suspenseful movie playing and replaying in your mind, complete with nail-biting plot twists and surprise guest appearances in worst-case scenarios. It’s as if your brain has a subscription to the most dramatic channel on TV, and every worry is a gripping episode that leaves you on the edge of your mental seat, popcorn optional.

Science tells us that we’re likely to have evolved this somewhat cute little knack of being overly worried as a way of protecting ourselves from the good and the bad during times when things were just a little bit more simple than they are today.

Like when we had to make life and death decisions about whether to fight or flight in a certain situation. Things were simpler then – a sabre tooth tiger roars in the distance – and all you needed to do was decide whether you were going to hang around or not. Anxiety is, in effect, a super power.

Life isn’t so simple now. The places that we find ourselves leading in, are full of situations that constantly ignite our fight or flight intuitions. But how do we learn from anxiety and how do we unleash this super power without it just sending us all absolutely bonkers? Well there are a few things that we can do to help.

Firstly; being aware of your negativity bias. This is the thing in your mind that likes to make the worst of everything. It’s likely that your negativity bias will be in full flight when you’re tired, hungry, angry, frustrated, stressed … and there are multiple problems needing to be addressed. During these times your own negativity bias will be fuelling your anxiety. 

The work around this is to be aware of your thoughts. Your negativity bias is only one way of looking at something. Psychologists like to use the term Cognitive Flexibility. Instead of defaulting to one way of looking at something, take your time to look at the situation from a variety of angles. Maybe, just maybe, that staff member who you thought gave you a dirty look during the staff meeting doesn’t hate you after all! There might be another rational and logical reason for that particular face.

Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki describes different ways that we can turn anxiety into a superpower.

1. Productivity Superpower – also known as the WHAT IF anxiety. This may look like these sort of questions in your head;  “What if he didn’t do that” and “What if that wasn’t done right” and “what if this thing all goes wrong”

To turn this particular anxiety into a superpower she recommends turning these thoughts into actions. Change your WHAT IF list into a TO DO list. Give your worries an action e.g ring someone for clarification, google something, ask for help from someone. Suddenly you’ve changed your anxiety into something productive!

2. Flow Superpower – Flow is that wonderful thing that occurs when you find yourself deeply in the moment and time seems to magically slow down and even disappear. Great things happen in flow. But anxiety is the enemy of flow. Nevertheless, periods of “micro flow” can still be found in times of anxiety. Chances are not noticing these occurrences though. Micro flow happens all the time, even in times of anxiety. Even if it’s a moment of day dreaming – or letting yourself daydream; letting yourself go, just for the moment. It can help, and more so if you can catch yourself doing it and take some time to savour it. 

3. Empathy Superpower – Let’s face it we all have anxiety and we all know what anxiety feels like. We can use this by being aware of the anxieties of others. This is a superpower that is so easy to put in place. Notice the people around you. Look for the signs – those signs that you know so well because you produce them yourself. All you have to do is give a kind word, or lend a hand to the person who is going through their ‘stuff’. 

Maybe anxiety can teach us a lot more about ourselves and the situations that we find ourselves in  than just feeling shitty, or just being worn out. There’s no doubt that it’s not easy. There will be times when it’s ok just to embrace the “down”. But remember, you don’t have to do that. You have a choice. Your anxiety doesn’t control you. 

Instead you control your anxiety.