We are often asked by subject matter experts about anxiety, and how they can eliminate it. We hear a lot about an epidemic of poor mental health—but even so, the question feels like people are missing the point somewhat. There is a growing groundswell of opinion that points out that some level of anxiety is not just normal, but actually necessary. Indeed, some authors now argue that anxiety can even be used to improve performance.  

Anxiety and mental health

Consistently, surveys in the US and the UK estimate that around a fifth of the population feels anxious most or all of the time. However, mental health conditions are notoriously hard to diagnose accurately. They rely on self-reporting, with no objective tests available.

It is clearly true that some people experience crippling anxiety: the kind that means that they cannot function. For most of us, however, this simply is not the case. 

What most of us mean when we say that we are feeling anxious is that we are a bit worried about something. We might be feeling concerned about the state of the world, and on top of that, something happens at work that is less than ideal. We might be pushed into situations where we have to do something we aren’t ready to take on. We might feel that we can’t do a good enough job, or that someone else could do better. 

This level of anxiety should not be feared (pun intended). Instead, it should be embraced.

Back in 2007, Susan Jeffers’ book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway was published. It was the start of Jeffers’ huge international career as a self-help author. More than 15 years on, it feels like some of the ideas in her book would be worth revisiting, especially in the light of more recent work from other authors such as Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower.

A quick recap

Psychologist Patricia Morgan explains that Jeffers’ basic premise was that we all feel different kinds of fear, such as fear of change, fearing to take action, and fearing rejection. However, the biggest fear of all is of not being able to ‘handle it’. Jeffers noted that if we let our fear take over, we end up feeling helpless, and this reinforces our fears. Instead, we need to manage our self-talk, and simply act.

Jeffers argued that taking risks could help us to build up resilience, the power to bounce back in the face of setbacks and crises. This helps us to improve our decision-making, and learn to embrace opportunities instead of fearing them. Ultimately, she argued, we are responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and choices. We will live better if we accept that change, mistakes and challenges are all part of life. Her mantra boils down to being determined to choose to ‘handle it’—whatever ‘it’ is.

Aarons-Mele’s concept of anxiety is much closer to what would be recognised by mental health professionals than Jeffers’s concept. However, like Jeffers, she also sees the need to have a relationship with anxiety or fear. She suggests that you cannot simply ignore it. Instead, when you feel anxious or afraid, you should see it as your brain telling you that something needs to change. For example, should you lower your expectations? Work a little less? Change your deadline?

Aarons-Meles describes a series of ‘thought traps’ into which we all fall from time to time. They include catastrophising, or assuming that things will go catastrophically wrong because of our actions, all or nothing thinking, where everything is either a total success or a total failure, and labelling, where you take on behaviours as personality traits (for example, ‘I am a failure’ instead of ‘Well, I got that wrong’). She also notes that each thought trap has an ‘escape hatch’, usually applying reality to the situation. She suggests that interrogating your anxiety can help you to identify what is really worrying you—and then act on it. Practically, she also suggests that physical exercise can help you break out of a downward spiral of fear.

Moving yourself on

What both Jeffers and Aarons-Mele share is the sense that you have to move on from anxiety. Yes, it’s hard, but anxiety is a normal part of life. We cannot afford to be crippled by it. Instead, we need to harness it, use it to tell us what is concerning us, and then act.

How have you embraced the gift of anxiety?