• Ideas
  • health

Anxiety Feels Terrible, But It Has an Upside. Here’s How to Make It Work in Your Favor

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:
Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is a psychoanalyst and emotions educator. She is the author of the award-winning book It's Not Always Depression.
Juli Fraga, Psy.D., is a psychologist, writer and emotions educator who teaches "Empathy Bootcamp."

These days, there’s a lot to be anxious about. Between losing loved ones and experiencing financial strain to family stress and fears about illness, many of us are struggling more than ever. In a 2021 survey of more than 3,000 adults, 47% reported feeling anxious, and 57% of Black adults said they worried about their future. In addition, 54% of essential workers admitted to drinking alcohol and overeating to ease their emotional pain.

Anyone who’s experienced anxiety knows the distress it can bring. Often, this spiky emotion causes a racing heart, headache and knotted stomach. Frequently, we interpret these sensations as a danger sign. For instance, we might mistake social anxiety as evidence that everyone dislikes us or believe performance anxiety means we’re actually impostors.

While anxiety certainly feels terrible, it does have an upside. In her new book, Good Anxiety, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki repositions anxiety as a potentially positive force in our lives that can open the door to self-care and resilience—two things that inoculate us from stress. From this vantage point, social jitters might be a sign to reach out for support, while performance woes might be a signal to practice our craft a little more or spend two minutes in a power pose. When we realize anxiety can be a helpful messenger, we can make it work in ways that benefit our psychological well-being.

From this perspective, anxiety isn’t a symptom we solely manage with medication or behavioral therapies (even though research shows these treatments work); it’s also a cue to search for its underlying cause. Like a detective, we can start by asking ourselves some exploratory questions. For instance, “How does anxiety show up in the body?” “What is it telling us?” and “What core emotions brew beneath our anxiety?” Illuminating anxiety’s relationship to underlying core emotions can lead to lasting change, emotion-focused researchers point out.

Core emotions like sadness, anger, fear, disgust, joy, excitement and sexual excitement affect the whole body to make it move in ways that help us survive and thrive. This is why fear mobilizes the body for running and anger gets us ready to fight. However, we also have another category of emotions called inhibitory emotions, more commonly known as anxiety, guilt and shame. The key to moving through anxiety lies in understanding the difference between core and inhibitory emotions.

As emotion-focused therapists and educators, we teach our patients about this relationship. Like a high-speed motor, anxiety revs us up, making it hard to think clearly because our thoughts and feelings become a threat. When we’re in this amped-up state, anxiety blocks core emotions, making it impossible to sense our emotional needs, let alone use them in ways that help us.

The good news, however, is that we don’t need to remain stuck. Anxiety can be a clue that we need to identify and experience our core emotions, which leads to calm and clarity.

Here are some tools that can help untangle anxiety and make it work in our favor, not just in the moment but for years to come.

Acknowledge anxiety.

When children are flooded with big feelings, adults often tell them to “use their words,” because putting language on anxiety helps dial it down. Researchers call this “affect labeling.” One study found that naming negative emotions calmed down the amygdala, the part of the brain where feelings light up. When this happens, emotional reactivity loses its charge because the right and left parts of the brain become more connected, says psychiatrist and author Dr. Dan Siegel in his book Mindsight.

For instance, many of our patients tell us they obsess over their mistakes or ruminate about work, which are common symptoms of anxiety. In situations like these, merely saying to yourself, “I feel anxious” can lead to what psychologist Diana Fosha, developer of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy. calls a “click of recognition.” Naming our emotional experience is validating, which permits us to be authentic. In addition, accepting our emotions disarms the need for defense mechanisms—behaviors like overworking, denial and addiction that numb pain but suck up vital energy. Without the need for these Band-Aids, we’re better equipped to use our energy to engage in work and relationships.

Slow anxiety down.

When you’re anxious, a decisive step is to slow the body down with body-based tools like grounding and deep belly breathing.

When we’re in the throes of anxiety, being told to “take a deep breath” can come across as overly simple or downright aggravating. However, science tells us breathing can slow down anxiety’s engine. Neuroscientist Stephen Porges, who developed “polyvagal theory,” says diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which triggers the body’s relaxation response. When this happens, stress hormones like cortisol decrease, and we feel immediate relief, say researchers.

When a patient tells us they’re worry-filled, we invite them to slow down their nervous system by saying, “Right now, can you give yourself permission to move away from your thoughts and into your body? Bring your attention to the soles of your feet as they meet the floor. Sense the firm ground underneath you.”

Next comes the invitation to shift into deep belly breathing. We teach, “Take the deepest breath you can and send the air down to the base of your abdomen. Let your belly pop out like a Buddha and try to keep your chest down.” We suggest placing one hand on the chest and the other on the belly to help with this process. Then, we teach them to hold their breath for one beat, then slowly release the breath through pursed lips like they’re blowing on hot soup. We coach them to tune into their body during the whole breathing cycle so they can learn how to breathe in a maximally relaxing way.

Get curious about core emotions.

According to Dr. Judson Brewer, a physician and scientist, curiosity can be anxiety’s companion. Defined as the “desire to take in new information,” curiosity can open the mind to possibilities, which helps us search for novel solutions. Researcher Jordan Litman calls this “interest curiosity,” and studies show it can increase motivation and enhance learning. Thus, through curiosity’s lens, we can see anxiety as an invitation to identify our underlying core emotions.

To do this, we encourage our patients to adopt a compassionate and non-judgmental stance toward themselves. Then, we invite them to scan their body from head to toe and notice where they feel anxiety. Next, we ask them to imagine moving the anxiety aside so they can notice what core emotions they are feeling. For example: “Is sadness there?” “Is anger there?” “Is excitement there?”

More than one core emotion may be present, and they can be opposite. For instance, we can feel sadness and anger at the same time. Noticing each core emotion can help us listen to the message they’re sending. Anxiety always has a more profound meaning. It’s never the end of the story; it’s the beginning.

Identify the conflict.

Anxiety can be a symptom of a deep inner conflict that’s throwing us into torturous thinking. For instance, a patient may want to go home for the holidays but dread being with their parents, which causes them to ruminate and feel tense.

To get out of this bind, it helps to validate each side of the conflict, or as we say in our practice, change the “but.” Doing so negates each opposing side to an “and,” which creates room for both feelings to coexist. For example, we can validate our desire to see our family, and honor the anger that their hurtful behaviors evoke. Then we can come up with solutions to deal with their behaviors—such as setting boundaries, which can include saying things like, “Dad, if you continue calling me names, I’ll leave.”

Sadly, our dysfunctional society, with its many antiquated myths about emotions, sends the message that anxiety is pathological or a genetic defect. But emotion education tools can turn this frightening foe into a wonderful teacher. In the end, anxiety isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of being human.

Correction, Nov. 5, 2021

The original version of this story misstated Dr. Stephen Porges’ first name. It is Stephen, not Steven.

Most Popular from TIME

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.