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The Upside of Anxiety: Harness its Energy to Improve Your Future

Yoga breathing INHALE EXHALE sign at fitness class on lightbox inspirational message with exercise mat, mala beads, meditation pillow. Accessories for fit home lifestyle.When Joan’s mom, Kathleen, was about 40 years old, a doctor told her she had type 2 diabetes. This shocked Kathleen, who had always thought of herself as generally healthy. At first, she was frightened and even a bit depressed about her future health and well-being. But soon she transformed her anxiety into dogged determination to understand nutrition so that she could use her diet to make herself healthy again. When Joan was a little girl, she recalls her mother frequently sitting on a bed with several open books strewn in a circle around her, avidly reading everything she could find from reputable sources about nutrition and health. Kathleen’s glucose levels quickly normalized, and her diabetes was cured—never to return.
In fact, Kathleen figured out long before modern science did that the best eating style for health and longevity was a traditional Mediterranean diet. Joan grew up eating lots of fresh vegetables, berries and nuts, beans, fish, and seafood, along with a large salad dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and red-wine vinegar at the start of each evening meal. Kathleen’s angst-motivated mission to find and follow the healthiest diet enabled her to live to age 99. Joan was an only child, and her father, Leonard was about the least anxious person I’ve ever known; he lived to age 94. Paradoxically, Kathleen’s distress about being diagnosed with diabetes was a key turning point that changed for the better the trajectory of all three of their lives. The diet that Kathleen fed their little family kept Leonard happy and vigorous for over nine decades and inspired Joan to become a dietician.
Jim Morrison famously said, “You shouldn’t take life too seriously; nobody gets out alive anyway.” This existential angst—worry that goes along with being alive—is unavoidable. It’s part of what makes life so precious, and it is a powerful motivator to accomplish big things. Like most millennials, my kids—as they were growing up, and even today—complain about their anxiety as if it were an illness. Their generation grew up thinking that anxiety is dangerous and destructive and that the solution to its discomfort is to eradicate it as if it were an illness. I tell them, “Look around; the people who make a real positive difference and who change the world for the better, are generally not well-adjusted individuals.” Abraham Lincoln was pathologically depressed most of his life, and it goes without saying that he wasn’t on Prozac. Mikel Jollett is a brilliant author and singer-songwriter who has struggled with anxiety, anger, and depression since being raised in an orphanage in a commune/cult in Northern California in the 70s. His memoir Hollywood Park is one of my all-time favorite audiobooks. He says, “Take the pain and make it useful. The longing, the fear, the heartache, and the dread. The ability to see these broken pieces of yourself like cracks in your armor through which you are better able to see the world: too broken to be normal, just broken enough to see beauty.” Many successful people have learned to harness stress, nervousness, and fear and use it to fuel their productive and creative ventures. Face it—you are going to have some chronic anxiety, even if it’s subconscious, and that’s okay. It’s even a good thing if you can redirect that energy into motivation to become more productive.
When we accept that anxiety is unavoidable in our day-to-day lives and understand that it is meant to be a useful emotion, we can transform it into a positive force for our well-being. Kathleen learned how to leverage her distressing anxiety, rather than be overwhelmed by it, and this allowed her to discover fundamental insights about how to eat for longevity 50 years before modern science finally figured it out. This can be a lesson for all of us in our struggles with inescapable anxiety. If Kathleen had complained to her physician that she was paralyzed by worry about her diabetes, he probably would have prescribed her Valium, a benzodiazepine. This would have kept her “comfortably numb” but would have also completely melted away her energy and motivation to figure out her own solution. What’s more, “benzos” like Xanax and Ativan are alarmingly addictive and over decades of use can increase the risk of depression and dementia.
When we chronically medicate our angst and worries with chemicals like anti-anxiety meds and/or alcohol, we short-circuit our natural coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, and thus, those skills atrophy. Play, pets, meditation, music, dance, yoga, reaching out and connecting with family and friends, prayer, attending religious services, exercise, and outdoor activities like gardening can all be remarkably effective for dissipating anxiety. On the other hand, popping a pill instead is like sweeping dirt under the rug. If you are not harnessing your worries as a motivation to think up solutions and make changes, you are doomed to a downward spiral of unsolved problems and maybe even issues related to dependence and addiction.
Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary in her book, Future Tense, argues anxiety is a protective response that arose via evolution in response to potentially threatening situations. That sense of worry is there for a reason—to spur us on and boost our creativity and problem-solving powers. It helped our ancient ancestors endure in the wild, and it is also essential for your health and survival today. Although stress and fear are uncomfortable emotions, they can be valuable motivators to imagine an uncertain outlook and do things now to make the future safer and better. In that way, anxiety is inextricably linked to hope.
Shortly after our son Evan started medical school, he called to tell me in a distressed tone, “I don’t think I can get through this. There are just so many opportunities to fail.” I reassured him and quoted an old Jewish adage that I often recite to myself: “The price of security is insecurity.” Evan leaned into his sense of self-doubt to motivate him to pay close attention during lectures and study endlessly during his medical school years. By leaning into his insecurity, he ensured that he would not fail, and secured his future.
Achieving a new mindset that “stress can be our friend” won’t alleviate anxiety by itself. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, in her book Upside of Stress, encourages us to change our mindset about stress so that instead of doing everything we can to reduce it or sedate our minds, we learn how to embrace stress and use it to make us stronger, smarter, and happier. There is a close link between resilience—the human capacity for stress-related growth—and one’s mindset. Beliefs have the power to shape reality. When you cultivate a mindset that focuses on the potential benefits of stress, it can make all the difference and transform a toxic emotion into a force for personal growth and newfound strength.
If you can change your mindset about the emotion of anxiety so that you think of it not as an illness that needs to be eradicated but instead as a signal of potential trouble on the horizon and a tool to motivate change, it can be a source of ingenuity and willpower.
Your brain is designed to learn from stress, whereby challenging experiences can help you grow stronger and wiser. Emotional stress can provide focus and energy. Navigating your way through a stressful period together with others, whether at home or at work, can help you bond and strengthen close relationships.
Prisons and graveyards are full of people who didn’t have enough anxiety. They saw an unlocked car that was running with nobody in it and decided, “Heck yeah! What could go wrong?” Or they drove their motorcycle 140 miles an hour because it was exhilarating and they felt bulletproof and immortal. Anxiety is a warning sign of danger ahead. Stress is a motivator to make you more resourceful. Forget about trying to be comfortably numb; instead, channel your anxiety into actions to make your life better.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD