You probably wouldn’t list “anxiety” as a special skill on your resume—but maybe you should.
Anxiety disorders are extremely common. In fact, more than 40 million Americans (that’s 18.1 percent of the population) have some form of anxiety, making it the most common mental health issue in the U.S. And those numbers are probably going up, since any human who’s spent more than five minutes watching the news or scrolling through Facebook this year has probably been hit with an anxiety attack or two.
But since so many people experience anxious thoughts, could there be some sort of evolutionary advantage? And could a bit of anxiety actually be helpful in modern life? Turns out, anxious people have many qualities that can help them surpass their peers in the workplace.
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Now, before we really get into all the good sides of anxiety, I want to make one thing clear: If you suffer from a severe anxiety disorder, I’m not telling you to simply “look on the bright side.” But if you have anxiety, your worried thoughts might give you a couple superpowers you never even realized.
Worry Hard, Work Hard
A study published in Science Direct found that people with high levels of anxiety put more effort into their work than their less anxious cohorts—and that makes total sense.
When you have anxiety, it’s rare to ever settle into a state of “I don’t care.” You want to keep your job, you don’t want to let your coworkers down, you want people to think you’re capable… and a whole host of other worried thoughts keep you motivated in the office. When you have a consistent, low-level of anxiety about your work, it fuels you to do your best every day. Someone without that anxiety has to find that motivation elsewhere, while the anxious folk always have a worried cheerleader in their head telling them to “work harder!”
A Spidey Sense for Danger
Psychoanalyst Ken Eisold, Ph.D., sees anxiety in a positive light. “Anxiety is a normal part of life, a signal of danger,” he says, noting that anxiety makes us aware of all the types of danger we face in our lives. Not just physical danger—like, say, a black bear charging at us in the forest, but social and emotional danger as well.
Maybe a bunch of coworkers are talking crap about a new project, and you feel weird about it. That anxiety is telling you that this conversation could be dangerous to your standing in the company, so you should avoid it—and when the boss hears about all the smack talk, you’ve safely stayed in everyone’s good graces.
Listening to your natural anxiety is really important. It’s warning you of physical, emotional, and social dangers, and avoiding those dangers helps you protect yourself. Of course, anxious people may sometimes overreact to “perceived danger.” Like when a coworker says “Hi, how are you?” to one person but only says a short “Hi” to you, and you spend the rest of your day wondering why that coworker hates you. In that case, you’ve perceived a danger that wasn’t really there, so the anxious reaction winds up wasting a lot of mental energy that could be focused elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean to assume all anxiety is an overreaction. When you experience anxiety in the workplace, take a moment to reflect—does the danger feel real? Is it worth spending mental energy on? If the answer is yes, listen to that anxiety and get out of danger’s way.
Long Live the Worrier
When you’re an anxious person, what’s one thing you’re great at? Worrying! As an anxious lady myself, I know my worrying game is always on point. Am I driving too fast? Will I die in traffic? Which car will end my life today? OK, those worries are probably a little more L.A.-centric than most, but those kinds of questions aren’t foreign to the worrying kind.
But this concern about the safety of yourself and others is a good thing, and it can lengthen your life. A study published in Psychological Medicine found that adolescents with low anxiety were more likely to die in an accident before age 25. You know who’s super unlikely to die in an accident? The anxious 11-year-old going 2 mph in a go-cart because she’s scared of the danger involved (yup, me again).
Of course, accidents can happen to anyone. But people with anxiety are much less likely to put themselves in dangerous positions. Therefore, they’re less likely to die before their 30th birthday.
Combine the benefit of simply being alive with the fact that an anxious employee is less likely to break their legs from a weekend skydiving trip, and it’s potentially more cost effective to hire people with anxiety. Think of all the sick days some anxiety-free daredevil has to take! A worrier? None. OK… maybe one for the day when you got sick, Googled it, and thought you had a rare brain tumor. But aside from that, you’re likely to stay physically healthy.
Make Anxiety Your Superpower
Though anxiety can be an advantage in the workplace, that doesn’t mean you want to let your anxious thoughts spiral out of control (not that you can always control them). Remember that study that showed that anxious people were less likely to die from an accident before 25? Well, that same study said that highly anxious people had higher non-accident mortality rates later in life.
Since an anxious person is likely to experience a high level of stress, this isn’t surprising. The American Psychological Association has stated that chronic stress can lead to coronary disease, depression, and an increased risk of cardiovascular issues. Stress also tends to make pain and illnesses worse, and a study published in the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences found that constant stress can suppress your immune system. Basically, you can worry yourself to death if you aren’t careful.
But that doesn’t mean that anxiety will lead to a life of sickness and pain. It just means you need to channel your natural anxious tendencies into a superpower. And there’s one easy way to do it: Get excited!
OK, I know that sounds like garbage advice. If I were really anxious and someone said, “Just get excited!” I’d want to punch them in the face—and then immediately start worrying about how much trouble I’d get in for punching a person in the face. But anxiety and excitement are close cousins. And when you reframe anxiety as excitement, you get great results.
The Journal of American Psychology published a paper all about reappraising anxiety. One 2013 study mentioned notes that “cognitive appraisals are powerful tools that help shift negative stress states to more positive ones.” The paper went on to say that when you’re anxious, you tend to think about the potential negative results of your actions. But when you’re excited, you tend to focus on the positive. Since anxiety and excitement are emotions with a high level of arousal, it’s not that hard to shift the negative visions to positive ones.
When you tell yourself, “I’m so worried about this report,” you’re anxious and obsessed about the bad that could happen. Instead, just say, “I’m so excited about this report.” At first, that might be a complete lie. But telling yourself that the task at hand is exciting can quickly change your point of view. You may not immediately think of all the potential positive outcomes, but you won’t be focused on the negative.
A Journal of American Psychology study cited in the paper involved a bunch of people who were asked to sing karaoke, an often anxiety-inducing experience. When people simply said, “I am excited” before singing, their performance improved. They sang the lyrics with greater accuracy, felt better about their presentation, and probably tried a couple of sick dance moves* (*this is just my assumption; the study did not get into the relative sickness of participants’ moves).
So when your anxiety starts to spiral out of control, just tell yourself those three little words. Yes, that might feel stupid, but you’d be surprised how much they can change your attitude. Even false excitement can reduce your amount of stress and allow you to do an excellent, motivated job.
Anxiety affects nearly all of us at some point. And there’s no reason to think that makes you a bad or difficult employee. When you harness the energy of your anxious mind, you’ll be the best in the office, every time.
Amber Petty is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. If you like easy crafts and Simpsons gifs, check out her blog, Half-Assed Crafts.