It is no secret that Americans have been stressed to unprecedented levels in recent years. However, Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist, argues that a proper mindset can turn debilitating stress into a superpower.
A quarter of U.S. adults suffer from debilitating anxiety due to “external stressors that are out of their personal control,” such as rising inflation, a global pandemic, and rising crime, according to the American Psychological Association.
It is currently estimated that 19% of U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder, and 15% regularly use psychiatric drugs — a trend that Carmichael describes as “medicalizing (and thereby monetizing) what’s actually a normal part of the human experience.” Rampant anxiety also exacerbates our current obesity crisis.
Instead of relying on drugs, Carmichael recommends analyzing the source of anxiety and using the energy anxiety produces to either lean into the anxiety or pivot away from it.
In order to “lean into” anxiety, one can analyze the underlying cause and attempt to solve the issue. If the cause of stress is an event in the future, preparing for it can help, according to Carmichael. If you have a job interview, for example, you can use the extra energy from anxiety to develop a better cover letter, practice interview questions with a friend, or create a presentation.
Sometimes, however, we remain anxious about events that have already occurred, otherwise known as “outmoded stressors.” In these instances, it is best to pivot away from the anxiety, explained Carmichael.
While meditation and deep breathing can be helpful techniques, one can also use the excess energy to accomplish other tasks written on a “mental shortlist.” Carmichael explains that a mental shortlist allows a person to use his “anxiety constructively rather than just trying to manage or escape from it.”
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, argues that stress has always been with us and was very useful in early human evolution. In contrast to our ancestors, however, we are living in a “delayed return environment.”
“If you do a good job at work today, you’ll get a paycheck in a few weeks. If you save money now, you’ll have enough for retirement later. Many aspects of modern society are designed to delay rewards until some point in the future,” explained Clear.
The delayed return environment perpetuates stress for longer periods than our neolithic brains are equipped for, he says.
“The mismatch between our old brain and our new environment has a significant impact on the amount of chronic stress and anxiety we experience today,” Clear argues.
Carmichael hopes that by utilizing the energy from anxiety to accomplish goals, people become more productive, happier, and less reliant on medication.
“Anxiety often offers a silver lining, which is a boost of energy and focus that can actually be quite helpful if we know how to use them to our advantage,” she said. “Once we know how to use anxiety constructively, it actually becomes a friend rather than a foe.”