Anxiety is a familiar feeling for most of us, and trying to ignore or push down those anxious thoughts can do more harm than good. At times, it may be helpful to embrace the anxiety for what it's trying to tell you and harness its motivational powers.
"In small doses, anxiety can actually make us more creative. It enhances our motivation," psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma told TODAY. "It allows us to basically mobilize our resources that say, 'I need to get this problem solved, who can help me?'"
Productive versus unproductive anxiety
The first trick is recognizing when your anxiety is productive and when it's not. "Useful anxiety propels us forward; it's what we call productive," Varma said. "Unusable anxiety is called unproductive because it keeps your wheels spinning, but there's no motion, there's no acceleration."
Typically, you'll have more productive anxious thoughts around things you can actually have some control over, Varma explained. Unproductive worry, which can also lead to rumination and physical symptoms (racing heart, difficulty sleeping, hard time concentrating), tends to pop up around elements of our lives we don't have as much control over.
How to make anxious thoughts work for you
If you find that your anxiety is severely impacting your life, including your work, sleep or relationships, that's a sign that you might want to try starting therapy. But there are still tools everyone can use to help make peace with their anxiety — and use it to their advantage.
Try a worry journal. "Spend 10 minutes a day worrying about everything you possibly can, and get it out on paper," Varma said. When you do this, you'll likely see that the vast majority of the things you're worried about don't actually come to pass.
Make an action list. This is your plan to tackle the anxieties that you have some control over. "Who do I need to contact? Who is going to help me? What are all the possibilities?" Varma said.
From there, pick the people who can help you accomplish your tasks and make a decision about how to proceed within a finite amount of time, she recommended. "And then that's it — you make a decision, and there's no buyer's remorse."
Keep a thought log. A thought log is a place to keep those negative thoughts and worries that just keep coming back. Use this space to write down those catastrophizing, worst-case possibilities, Varma said, but also think about the best-case scenarios and what is truly most likely to happen. Thinking through these other possibilities can help you break out of negative thought cycles.
Notice and avoid avoidance. "The number one thing that people do when they experience anxiety is run. They avoid people and places and things (that make them anxious) like the plague," Varma said. But, usually, avoiding what you're anxious about doesn't make the anxiety go away. "So I want you to lean in a little bit at a time feel the fear, as they say, and do it anyway," she said.
Accept when you don't have control. In many anxiety-provoking situations, there are productive steps you can take to help solve the issue and alleviate some of that anxiety. But in situations where you've done all you can or you simply don't have control at all, Varma said, it's time to recognize that it's "not a problem to be solved. It's a truth to be accepted."