Editor's Note: The spectrum of anxiety, including the vast range of clinical anxiety diagnoses, is varied and complex. People may experience anxiety in mild to moderate or occasional forms, or may live full-time with a serious anxiety disorder. If you feel, at any time, that your anxious feelings are negatively affecting your day-to-day life, please don't hesitate to seek professional help. If you are currently struggling with or seeking treatment for your anxiety, we support you!
It’s 3 pm on a Friday and you’re pushing towards a 5:00 pm deadline. Your palms are sweating, your heart is going a mile a minute, and you can’t seem to catch your breath.
As the clock ticks closer to your deadline, you just feel worse—and by the time you finish your project (just in the nick of time), you feel like an anxious ball of nerves.
We’ve all been there! It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, or where you work—at some point, pretty much everyone experiences a certain degree of work-related anxiety. The deeper you move into your career the more likely you are to face a situation (whether that’s a looming deadline, a seemingly never-ending to-do list, or a challenging review) that can make anyone feel anxious, stressed, and all sorts of uncomfortable.
But while you might immediately assume those anxious, stressed, and uncomfortable feelings mean that something’s wrong, the truth is they’re totally normal—and if you know how to harness those feelings, they can actually help you.
“People are afraid of anxiety, and they think that there's something wrong with them if they feel it,” says Dr. Alicia Clark, psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety: How To Make Anxiety Work For You In Life, Love, and All That You Do. “[But] we don't function at our best unless we have some level of stress and anxiety.” The difference, it's important to point out, is that anxiety can seriously affect our performance (and lives), and knowing when to seek support (see editor's note).
So a certain level of anxiety can help you perform at a higher level... but how, exactly, does that work? How can you “hack” your anxiety at work and use it to do your best output, increase your productivity, and get even more done?
Anxiety vs Productivity: How They Interact
Before we jump into how to hack your anxiety to power through your to-do list, it’s important to understand how anxiety and productivity are related in the first place.
“Where I usually start in discussing the relationship between productivity and anxiety is a study that's been replicated over and over and over,” says Clark. “It’s become known as the Yerkes–Dodson law.”
According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, performance increases with mental or physiological arousal (which is a very fancy word for stress) but only to a point. Once stress passes that specific point, performance begins to drop pretty dramatically.
In other words, when it comes to performance, anxiety is a lot like Goldilocks and the Three Bears—not enough stress and you won’t have the motivation to do...well, pretty much anything. Too much stress and you’ll be so overwhelmed, getting things done can feel impossible. But just the right amount of stress and you can use it to maximize your performance and ramp up productivity. “The best working model for how anxiety and stress interact with productivity is that a moderate amount is ideal,” says Clark.
So, the key is finding that anxiety sweet spot. But how, exactly, do you find that “just right” amount of anxiety, and then use it to take your productivity to the next level?
Hack #1: Reframe Your Anxiety
As mentioned, when most people experience anxiety, their first thought is that something must be wrong, which, unfortunately, can cause even more anxiety. “I call that secondary anxiety, so you're anxious about the anxiety,” says Clark. “You're secondarily anxious about your emotional experience.”
But being anxious about being anxious is completely counterproductive.
“When we get afraid of anxiety...that ratchets our anxiety up and drives our productivity down,” says Clark. So what’s the first step to harnessing anxiety to get more done? Changing the way you think about and look at stress and anxiety.
One large-scale study on stress, which studied nearly 30,000 participants, found that how people perceive stress is a better indicator of health and life expectancy than the amount of stress they actually experienced. In fact, according to the research, people who experienced a high amount of stress but did not perceive it as harmful to their health had the lowest risk of dying—even lower than people who didn’t experience much stress to begin with.
Moral of the story: if you can change the way you relate to your anxiety, you can change the way you experience it—and you can then use it to your advantage.
Instead of telling yourself “I’m anxious”—and experiencing all the negative thoughts, feelings, and physical experiences that go along with that—try reframing your anxiety and calling it something else.
For example, if you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming presentation, instead of saying “I’m anxious about this presentation,” say “I’m excited about this presentation.” If you’re stressed out about a tight deadline, instead of telling yourself “I’m anxious about hitting this deadline,” say “I’m motivated to hit this deadline.” 💪🏽
Just changing what you call anxiety can make all the difference in whether it makes you more or less productive. The looming deadline or stress-inducing presentation aren’t going anywhere, but when you make a shift in your perception, the way you experience the anxiety about those things will change—and that can make it easier to use stress as motivation and get things done.
“When we name [anxiety] and we nudge it to the positive or we nudge it to the tolerable or we nudge it to ‘I can handle it’ or we nudge it to the realistic...we nudge it to the productive…[and] we make it positive,” says Clark.
Hack #2: Tune Into What Your Anxiety Is Trying To Tell You...
At its core, anxiety is “an information source. So it's tuning us into information about ourselves, our environment, the future, or something else that's important to us,” says Dr. Clark.
Ultimately, if you want to hack your anxiety to get more done, you need to figure out what message or information that anxiety is trying to send you.
Sometimes, the message will be crystal clear (for example: if your company is in the midst of massive layoffs, it’s no mystery where your anxiety about losing your job is coming from)—but other times, it might take a little bit of digging to get to the root source of your work-related stress.
“Ask yourself ‘What am I afraid of? What am I really worried about? What am I really scared of?,’” says Dr. Clark.
For example, you might feel rising anxiety every time you walk into work. But where is that anxiety coming from? Do you feel like your current company isn’t the right fit? Are you worried you’re not jiving with your new manager or team? Are you stressed about an upcoming review and the accompanying salary negotiations?
The point is, stress can come from a lot of different sources, and if you’re not sure where your anxiety is coming from or what it’s trying to tell you, it might take a little trial and error to figure things out. But once you stumble upon the root cause of your anxiety, don’t worry—you’ll be able to tell.
“There's this awareness of resonance where it feels like, ‘Yeah, that's it. That’s what I'm feeling,’” says Clark. “You'll know when you've sort of stumbled on what's your truth because you'll feel it.”
Hack #3: Use Your Anxiety To Take Action
So you’ve figured out where your anxiety is coming from and what it’s trying to tell you—but that’s only the first part of the equation. If you want your anxiety to have a positive impact on your productivity, you have to take that information and use it as a catalyst for action.
“Really, the message is what is in your control and what can you do?,” says Clark.
Once you start taking steps in the right direction, “Anxiety is not needed anymore. It's done its job,” continues Clark. “It's prompted you to notice, pay attention and take action in solving the thing [or problem] that it's signaling.” And, as a result, all those uncomfortable anxiety feelings will start to ease up.
Let’s say you’re having anxiety because you have an article due tomorrow and you haven’t even started thinking about writing it (...or maybe that’s just me?). The message your anxiety is sending is “hey, you’ve got a deadline, and it’s time to get to work.” Once you roll up your sleeves and get to work, your anxiety has done its job, so you won’t feel like a complete ball of nerves while you’re hammering out your article.
And the best part?
You don’t have to completely solve every potential problem or issue in your work (or in your life) in order to reap the benefits—just taking action is enough to jumpstart your productivity and lessen your anxiety. “Just doing that [and taking that action] is going to alleviate some of that anxiety that's been needling you to get started,” says Clark. “Remember—[anxiety is] there to help get you into productive action...so you can be your best self.”
“When we name [anxiety] and we nudge it to the positive or we nudge it to the tolerable or we nudge it to ‘I can handle it’ or we nudge it to the realistic...we nudge it to the productive…[and] we make it positive”
- Dr. Alicia Clark
When Anxiety Crosses The Line
There’s no denying that the right amount of anxiety can help motivate and inspire you to get more done—but there is definitely a line where anxiety crosses the line from helpful to harmful.
“There seems to be an appetite to understand what’s normal versus what’s not. And I think it really all does boil down to how is [anxiety] impacting you—and is it helping you be your best or is it getting in your way?,” says Clark.
If you find that your anxiety feels overwhelming, you’re unable to relax, or its inhibiting you from living the kind of life you want to live (whether at work, at home, or anywhere in between), you might be dealing with more serious, chronic anxiety or a clinically-diagnosable anxiety disorder. In which case, it’s important to get the help and support you need to get your anxiety under control and feel like your happiest, healthiest, and most productive self.
Embrace Your Anxiety At Work When It Counts
We’ve been conditioned to run from anxiety. And while too much anxiety at work isn’t good or healthy for anyone, embracing the normal, day-to-day experience of anxiety (which, let’s be real, is kind of par for the course of being human) can actually help motivate you to get more done.
“[Anxiety] is there helping us be our best selves. It really is there reminding us of the things that we’re focusing on life and all of the other things in front of us. It's helping remind us of the things that we might not be tending to that are also important. And it's reminding us of our goals and the things we care about most,” says Clark.
It’s time to live your best and most fulfilling life, embrace those nerves and GTD.