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Here's How Your Anxiety Can Actually Help You – Now The Days Are Getting Shorter

According to the anti-guru Sarah Knight, it's all about making worry work for you. 

I’ve always been a worrier.

Whether it’s about things that haven’t happened yet or things that just did, things that may never happen or things that certainly will – I find a way to fret, fuss, obsess and occasionally freak out.

It’s just who I am. I possess both a classic type-A personality and a medical diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety and Panic Disorder. (Write what you know, folks!)

But you don’t need a Xanax prescription to know what it feels like to be anxious, do you?

You recognise the symptoms, even if nobody in a starched white coat has clued you in yet to their significance. The racing pulse, the pounding heart, the tightness in your lungs, the queasy feeling in your gut.

To be honest, I’m getting anxious just thinking about it.

Soothe your anxiety

The good news is that whether you’re clinically, perennially anxious like me, or just temporarily anxious when the situation arises, there are ways to soothe and even put a stop to the side effects.

Deep breathing, for example. Or journaling, exercise, medication, meditation, or lying still in a dark room with a cool cloth over your face and fantasising about Idris Elba as the new James Bond.

Wait, where was I?

Oh yes: ridding yourself of anxiety. A fine goal and noble pursuit.

And over the last few years since I became an ‘anti-guru’ and author of a series of profane self-help books, I have managed to do just that on many occasions, through the various aforementioned methods and then some.

Much of the time, anxiety can be tamed by taking a break, walking away, or consciously distracting yourself from whatever’s bothering you.

In my newest book, Calm the Fuck Down, I offer dozens of tips in this vein, most of which are offshoots of practices you might already know as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness, adapted from my own personal experience and jazzed up with a few well- placed curse words.

All of my advice is in service to changing your mindset to change your reaction to stress and improve your overall wellbeing.

Here comes the but...

But – and believe me, I know this better than most – anxious people can’t always take that advice, despite our best intentions.

There are some days when I can’t change my mind-set or my reaction.

When I can’t stop my brain from running ‘what- if’ scenarios like ants swarming a sugar cookie.

Sometimes the anxiety, much like Cardi B in Met Gala couture, will not be contained. Fortunately, in times like these, I have one more trick up my sleeve. I call it ‘Productive Helpful Effective Worrying’ (PHEW).

If you’re prone to worrying and occasionally overwhelmed by your capacity for doing so, PHEW is a way to make your anxiety work for you, rather than against you. (The awesome acronym is just a side benefit.)

Well, the way I see it if your default setting is ‘What if?’ then at least when something bad happens (or is on the horizon), you already have a built-in coping mechanism. Your innate anxiety is there to assist you in planning for the worst and reacting to less-than-ideal outcomes.

For example, my anxiety helps me strategise because I’m so good at imagining the perils and consequences of not doing so.

My husband might think I’m a little overzealous when it comes to vacation planning, but he sure does sleep well in that interior room I requested — nobody wants to get woken up by a brass band marching down Bourbon Street in New Orleans at 4am. Thank you, anxiety!

It helps me be on time, because I’m always worried about unforeseen issues making me late, so I work a, ‘What if there’s a herd of cows in the road?’ cushion into my schedule. (I live in the Dominican Republic. Sometimes there are cows on the road.)

And it helps me to solve problems because my proclivity for worrying also brings a willingness to obsess over details and plot potential solutions.

Like, let’s say you’re freaking out about giving a presentation. You could try to ignore the source of your anxiety, or distract yourself from it by watching reruns of The Great British Bake Off and nervous-crying into some banana cream pie. That’s one way to do it, and hey, no judgments.

Or – and this is how I would handle it – you could channel that nervous energy into preparing a great script and rehearsing the shit out of it, enhancing the likelihood of, you know, actually giving a great presentation.

So productive! So helpful! So effective!

The good worry

You worried, yes. But you didn’t waste precious practice time curled up into a banana cream ball. You met the source of your anxiety head-on and as a result, you’re that much more likely to nail it in front of the client on Monday. Furthermore, when you do nail it, you’ll have changed the pattern of your anxious thoughts: ‘What if I totally bomb?’ to ‘When I confront my anxiety in a productive, helpful, effective way, I do great!’

This, in turn, helps to prevent the anxiety from rearing its nasty head again in a similar situation. Your brain doesn’t want to deal with that sh*t any more than you do; it’s designed to take cues and run with them. Presentation anxiety? What presentation anxiety!

All of this is to say: sometimes it pays to be anxious, to acknowledge what’s happening to you, pinpoint the part(s) of it you can control, and lean into your problem in service of solving it. If you can’t beat your anxiety, join it. And save me some pie.

Sarah Knight is the author of Calm the F**k Down (Quercus), out now.

Main image by @ninamarker

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