Anxiety is often seen as the thing that holds us back from success. But there’s an upside to this difficult emotion that can actually be a boon to our jobs.
Research suggests that when harnessed, anxiety can drive work performance, increase academic achievement, and boost job satisfaction. Even simply reframing anxiety into something you’re excited about can help you perform better. Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT, a psychotherapist, anxiety expert, and founder of CBTschool.com, notes that “anxiety can be a very powerful motivator and phenomenal energy source.”
Here’s why: When our brain detects a potential threat or risky situation, it sends out potent hormones and chemicals, including cortisol and adrenaline, to the entire body. This provides us with the drive, momentum, and strength “to tackle almost any problem”—even complex ones. Anxiety also clues us into how engaged we are in meaningful activities and relationships, says Erin Haugen, Ph.D., LP, CMPC, a clinical and sports psychologist who helps others achieve their peak performance goals.
In other words, anxiety can actually be awesome. Here’s how to capitalize on your anxiety so it becomes a massive advantage at work.
1. Use Anxiety as Data
What about that upcoming project, interaction, or situation is making you anxious? Once you can pinpoint the root cause, you can use that vital data to inform your behavior, according to Haugen. For instance, she says, if you’re worried about the Q&A portion of your presentation, you can prepare statements in advance and practice them. If you’re thinking “I just can’t do this,” she says, you can reframe it and tell yourself: “Yes, I’m uncomfortable, and I can do things and experience success even when I’m uncomfortable.”
2. Address the Stress
It might seem silly at first, but talking directly to your anxiety like it’s a supportive friend who’s on your side can absolutely transform it. Quinlan advises using these kinds of empowering statements: “Let’s do this anxiety! Let’s get to work,” or “Thank you for showing up anxiety. I am going to need you to help me power through this difficult task,” or “Bring it on anxiety! You and I are going to get to work and create something that will blow my boss away.”
3. Get in the Zone
Too much anxiety plunges us into fight or flight. But not enough anxiety leaves us feeling bored and unmotivated. In order to harness anxiety, we need to find our sweet spot or “zone of optimal functioning,” which is different for everyone, says Haugen.
To start, she suggests thinking about the three times you performed well on a task and rating your anxiety level from zero to 10. Also, consider what’s going on in your mind and body when your anxiety is too low or too high for optimum performance. “That number and those behaviors that you identify become your zone of optimal functioning,” says Haugen, “and you work to re-create that cognitive and physiological space.”
Your target zone also depends on the task. For example, Haugen notes, for a novel or challenging task, calming strategies might be best, such as practicing deep breathing and telling yourself: “Focus on the task at hand,” and “The sensations in my body are just telling me I’m ready to perform.”
4. Work it Out
Another excellent way to transform anxiety into a positive experience is to channel all that cortisol and adrenaline into working out. Quinlan notes that high-intensity exercise can be especially helpful—short sprints, push-ups, or jumping jacks. The key is to participate in whatever physical activities are fun for you.
5. Mind Your Interactions
Feeling anxious about a previous interaction with a client, coworker, or your supervisor? Use that anxiety to apologize for any missteps and communicate your thoughts more effectively. “More often than not, when we lean into that anxiety by addressing it—rather than avoiding it, which is what we often feel pulled to do—it builds rapport with our colleagues because we are authentically owning our mistakes and trying to do better,” says Haugen.
Similarly, you might channel your anxiety into sharpening your assertiveness skills or rehearsing what you’ll say before a difficult conversation.
Because anxiety feels uncomfortable, we often see it as a negative. Yet without it, we couldn’t perform nearly as well. Ultimately, when we use our anxiety to propel us into productive action, it enhances how we work—and helps us become more successful.