Blog - Reframing anxiety to see it positively and for productivity

By Claire Arnott | 4th Mar 2020

Anxiety especially in anxiety disorders like generalised anxiety or OCD is often seen as something life limiting or that’s holding us back. What if I was to propose that anxiety can in-fact propel you forward and seeks to move you towards what you want and desire when you get off track? I believe purpose and living from our values doing lots of what we love is the true antidote to excessive anxiety and that we truly deserve resolution of it. 

I suspect as a child I had ADD/ADHD – no behavioural issues (as it’s often misrepresented acronym infers) but definitely a mind that was quickly bored, impulsive/spontaneous and fundamentally confused by the schooling systems approach to learning. I had a high kinaesthesia and visualised well which meant I learnt well in interactive/experiential subjects (which were rare as….) and was not very good at listening or taking verbal instruction. I was in short an energetic dreamboat who wanted to please (and I often didn’t please as conformin and wild curiosity are different things) and anxiety came with all of the above.

So how is all this relative to my anxiety being a gift and it contributing to my productivity? Well as a child the one obvious factor of my anxiety was that it filled the mental boredom unmet by my environment (I was curious, creative and knowledge hungry unfed by conventional learning models) and so I speculate that my mind created it’s own entertainment so to speak and it has in many ways continued to do so into my adult life when relevant, a very resourceful coping mechanism.  

Whilst the thoughts & physical feelings of anxiety sort to distract me from emotional pain as a child (ever my complex cloak of protection) it also sort to expand into the void of a curious mind that wasn’t being filled up by anything else as satisfying or as certain as the anxiety itself. Anxiety for me creates a stark internal drama and it’s very compelling. An internal addiction to questioning and thought one might say. Anxiety was the dark side to the bright light that was my curiosity & creativity. When I look back even then I knew they were pieces from the same puzzle. 

Just like ADHD is essentially great energy and momentum when harnessed right, anxiety has the capacity to shift us and manipulate us from a conscious and unconscious level. And the unconscious only ever acts from positivity or highest intention. It is in this sense I can see how much my anxiety has continually steered me toward not just growth but finding my purpose and therefore some meaning in the mundane (how life mostly is). As soon as I get anxious now I ask ‘what am I not seeing here, what is the shift required to re-focus my mind and channel this anxious energy more positively and productively’. 

It’s important though not to confuse this ‘refocusing’ of the mind with distraction from anxiety. Distraction to the anxious mind is temporary, has pleasure attached, is usually unproductive (not always ? plenty of productive distracting cleaning under my belt) but often distraction becomes compulsive too like rumination, reassurance seeking and this is generally less helpful. 

Anxiety and the manifestations of it like panic, phobia, intrusive thoughts and exhaustion have taught me over and over when I’m getting to far from my values. How so? Well anxiety is life limiting to live with and lifestyle changes are usually necessary to keep functioning alongside it. For example in a dramatic relapse of my OCD after my first child was born I couldn’t return to the high stress job I actually didn’t even enjoy. I did however venture into a programme that I believed would not only support my mental health but lead me towards a more flexible profession that was of course yoga. 

Anxieties taught me to use my voice and to be truthful about how I feel. Being a people pleaser I’ve too often pushed down true feelings only for them to bubble to the surface passive aggressively or more commonly as Anxiety. Once I identified this pattern I was able to explore what I wasn’t seeing or most importantly ‘saying’ all be it sometimes even just to myself. 

From behaviours that are good for me like, relaxation and whole foods rather than alcohol and empty calories. Anxiety most powerfully has also taught me to make better empowering choices. And that I can’t always have everything how I want it – accepting that is vital to feeling mentally stable. The insight that I can’t control my thoughts as much as I’d like too came from mindfulness but also from manifestations of anxiety like intrusive thoughts. As with all things made of energy there will be surges and power failures and unexplainable static. 

Alongside all anxiety has taught me, is the fact it leads me into pursuits I really enjoy. When I’m regularly invested in meaningful and mind stretching activity my anxiety’s kept in much better shape, both on a daily basis and in the bigger picture. Example; watching TV offers little sanctuary for me, my mind ruminating, often triggered by a word or suggestion. Playing cards however, feeling the cards in my hands as I problem solve to reach outcomes and read other people’s body language to elevate the play is just so much more compelling. Similarly my running my yoga business versus the mummy life and chores of childcare and housework. But I understand in reality I can’t be 24/7 mentally compelled by everything I do. Chores need doing and even the most fulfilling roles have chore aspects. What I can control is more of that meaningful and compelling interesting and exciting content in areas of my life. More of the discourse I want or upholding the values I believe in. And over time I’ve recognised how unconsciously I know this and anxiety continues to guide me toward it, especially if things are becoming a little tiresome. 

Like a static that expands into the space of my mind when I’m not creatively and purposefully aligned, Anxiety is the weed that grows amidst the flowers. So the solution then – regular weeding and planting more seeds. Nurturing the soil in which the plants grow. Care and attention to tend to those plants. Care and attention is being true to myself and honest and doing more of what makes me tick.

And this has taken years of work around confidence and around boundaries and not people pleasing and having courage to say no, and it’s anxiety that has chased me up that path each step of the way. Now if I see anxiety creeping in the alarm bells go off. It’s a careful balancing act, not taking on too many things and juggling to many balls in the act of distraction but moving strategically in the name of purpose or direction. Busyness is an epidemic of modern culture as we seek to immerse ourselves in goals of materialgain, this ‘Doing’ is different and about being aware of what we’re busy with, developing awareness of what fuels us and fills us up, what we can ‘do’ in order to ‘be’.  

Anxiety and being very busy go hand in hand, and that’s because anxiety wants you to stream line, filter out the unhelpful to focus on what matters. It’s the warning sign that deep values aren’t being met and surface patterns are being repeated.And this is anxieties big gift to me – it keeps me invested in doing things I love with people I love constantly recreating an environment I love and can deeply appreciate. And I’m mostly still not anxiety free but I’m anxiety conscious and in that do feel free from anxiety’s control.

So if you think this is a lot of words to just tell you to get a decent hobby to help your anxiety it’s so much more than that. Explore your authentic voice, your values, take a mindfulness course, read my article ‘how to be creative like an artist even if your not one’ try yoga or tai chi or meditation to develop self awareness further and explore what interests you, excites you and makes you feel good, don’t wait till your anxieties gone – do it despite anxiety, enlist help to do if necessary.

Third generation psychotherapeutic approaches like ACT acceptance and commitment therapy are powerful intervention and offer insight into goal setting, finding compelling and interesting activities to pursue. Yoga can help quiet the mind. NLP can interrupt the patterns (habits) that so often keep us tied into repetitive thinking and behaviours and allow us to shift our ‘state’ to a more resourceful and positive physiology.

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