What If I Told You Your Anxiety Could Work to Your Advantage?

As you may or may not know, I’m currently studying Psychology at UC Santa Cruz. Last quarter, twice a week,  I and 200 other students would pack ourselves like sardines into one of the biggest lecture halls on campus for our introductory psychology class. We covered everything from the very basics of cellular brain structure, to child development, to mental health care. While we were only able to scratch the surface of each topic in order to cover a vast amount of material for the course, I learned an incredible amount about how humans operate and why we do the things we do.

This was the class I looked forward to the most- and every day I would show up early, eagerly grab my seat, and excitedly await the day’s lesson. This class was one of the first I’ve ever taken where my drive to do well in the course didn’t stem from perfectionism or the pressure to “do well.” No, this time it was my passion for the material itself. Everything I was learning felt intuitive, fascinating, and, most importantly, incredibly relevant and applicable to my everyday life.

It was during one of the last lectures of the quarter that I had a revelation.

My professor was covering health care for those suffering from mental illness that day, after a few days of lecturing on the history of psychopathology and the ever-evolving process of understanding brain health. For the past few days, I’d sat in horror as I learned about the barbaric treatment of sufferers: from the cavemen’s practice of trephination (cutting a hole into the skull to release the “evil demons” causing their behavior), to the more modern and yet equally terrifying mental asylums that could be better compared to a zoo than a hospital. It was in this lecture, however, that my professor put a name to something I realized I’d been doing for the past three months.

Psychoeducation.

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In a word, psychoeducation is empowerment. It’s a form of treatment that, in combination with other forms such as therapy, medication, etc., has been found to be extremely effective. The basic premise of psychoeducation is empowering  the patient and their community about what exactly mental illness is, so that they feel more informed and better equipped to take control of their health.

It sounds so simple, but the moment I heard my professor say the word I jotted it down, circled it, and added some stars for good measure. I suddenly understood why this course, as surface-level as it was, had left me feeling so fired up every time I left it. I left nearly every lecture feeling excited, feeling passionate, feeling like I better understood something about myself and others. Having dealt with mental illness my entire life, I’ve always considered myself to have a pretty good understanding of what it is, but the nuances and subtleties had been lost on me.

Until now.

No longer did it feel like mental illness was a dark cloud that lingered over everything I did and said. No longer did it feel like an omnipresent foe, waiting for me to slip up or fail. No longer did it feel like a contingency upon which all my successes and failures were dependent. Now, I understood the beast I was hunting. I understood how it operated, maybe not entirely, but enough to pull it out of legends and myths and into reality. Through just ten weeks of learning about the illnesses I’d been carrying my entire life, I’d made Bigfoot into a bear.

As I told my long-time therapist when I went back home and shared my biggest takeaway from my first quarter of college, “If nothing else, I’m going to really expensive therapy.”

For a long time, I’ve had a suspicion that empowerment was the missing link in how we are currently treating eating disorders, but now I have the vocabulary to articulate it. We shield so many sufferers from the way their illnesses operate and instead send armies after their symptoms. We treat the weight loss in anorexia patients, or the purging in bulimic patients, or the overeating in BED patients, but it’s so rare that we help them fully understand why these illnesses manifest in people’s lives, and why they take such a strong hold over them.

When patients are left in the dark, it’s no wonder they feel disempowered to take their lives back into their own hands.

An eating disorder isn’t just “not eating” to “being too skinny.” Those are symptoms that arise in a percentage of sufferers. Not all. And I’m living, breathing proof that just because you regain the weight or get your vitals stable doesn’t mean you’re not still suffering from the disease. But I wasn’t offered this education and insight into what it meant to have an eating disorder at the time of my diagnosis: the emphasis was entirely on the physical, giving me only a partial understanding of the beast I was fighting.

And it’s not just eating disorder patients that I think benefit from psychoeducation. One of the biggest ‘aha’ moments I had in my psychoeducation last fall was Arousal Theory: the idea that a little bit of anxiety isn’t the end of the world and, perhaps, it can even benefit you.

We live in a world where “anxiety” is constantly framed in a negative light.

We think about panic attacks, nervous people who are too scared to accomplish their dreams, or simply a bad feeling that hinders us from doing the things we want to do. But just like fear,  anxiety is just a feeling. It is not “good” or “bad,” it is a chemical tool our body uses to help us react to stimuli. We feel fear when we stand too close to a cliff’s edge because our body wants us to back away and not fall off a fucking cliff. We feel pain when we touch a hot stovetop because our body wants us to stop doing that. Similarly, we feel anxiety when there’s a little bit of pressure in our lives, because our body wants us to take things seriously.

If you didn’t feel any anxiety about finals, would you study as hard as you do? If you didn’t feel any anxiety about getting hurt, would you be more reckless when driving? If you didn’t feel any anxiety about a deadline coming up at work, would you be as productive? A little bit of anxiety isn’t a bad or abnormal thing- it’s a tool. It’s a motivator. It’s an incentive: do what you have to do so that you get that wave of relief at the end.

The issue with anxiety- and when it begins to creep into a form of mental illness- is when you feel an obsessive and excessive amount of anxiety in everyday life. There’s many forms of anxiety, but Generalized Anxiety Disorder is extremely common, and is simply defined as, “an anxiety disorder characterized by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry, that is, apprehensive expectation about events or activities.” Simply put, it’s feeling so anxious about so many trivial and inconsequential things that may or may not happen that it affects your quality of life.

So like many mental illnesses, it’s a normal emotion that is felt “too much.”

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However, like I mentioned earlier, sometimes anxiety isn’t just not a bad thing: it’s a good thing.

Arousal Theory is one of many theories that psychologists have to explain why people are motivated to do things. It’s an interesting question in and of itself: why do you do the things that you do? Why do you get up in the morning to go to work? Why do you go to the gym three times a week? Why do you feed your dog, buy clothes for your kids, and go grocery shopping- even when you don’t want to? 

The answers vary, of course. Some motivation can be explained through an inherent and basic desire to stay alive, like eating or drinking. Psychologists call this Drive Theory: we experience tension (like hunger or thirst), and do whatever it is we need to do (like eat or drink) in order to relieve this tension. Other motivation can possibly be explained through Incentive Theory, which states that we do certain things in order to pursue incentives, whether intrinsic (you pick up litter because it makes you feel good to comply with your inner moral values) or extrinsic (you go to your job you don’t like because it pays the bills).

But Arousal Theory is a little bit different.

Arousal Theory states that “people are motivated to achieve and maintain an optimum level of bodily arousal” (Fiske & Maddi, 1961).  In simpler terms, we’re always seeking a little bit of a high. It’s why rollercoasters are fun, or why football players yell and rough each other around to get pumped before a big game. Being physically aroused makes us perform better.

My professor told a story of one of her colleagues, an esteemed professor who had lectured for many years. He was known for his interesting and engaging lectures, and prided himself in how much benefit students got out of his teaching. However, one year he noticed that his lectures just weren’t landing the same way they used to. Sure, they still had all the same material, and he felt like he was delivering the same way, but something just felt a little…flat.

And then he remembered: Arousal Theory.

When he first started lecturing, it was new and exciting. There was even an air of nervousness when he’d take the podium for the first time. Over time, however, it started to get more routine. He got a little cocky. And his lectures stopped packing the same punch as they always had.

So what did he do? He started running up and down the stair case before class. He’d bring his body into a state of arousal, get his heart pumping and his adrenaline up, and bam. Just like that, his lectures were better than ever before.

Of course, with Arousal Theory, you’re working with a sweet spot. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal, optimum performance only comes from an optimum level of arousal. Being a little nervous is a great way to be primed for a great performance. But if you’re so nervous you’re feeling sick and shaky, it probably won’t benefit you. Imagine the butterflies in your stomach right before you go to compete or perform at something you’re good at: sure, there’s some nerves from the intensity of the situation, but you’re still reassured by your abilities. That’s the sweet spot.

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I had an experience similar to the professor, although I didn’t have an awareness of it at the time. When I first started really teaching (not practice teaching, or fumbling through the basics of my first full classes), I had a lot of classes that felt really good. There would be great energy in the room, I’d get really glowing feedback, and I’d leave feeling like I’d nailed it.

But that was back when teaching was brand new and the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. When teaching became a more regular part of my schedule, and I was sometimes teaching three or more classes a day, it was much easier to feel complacent, or even burnt out. Objectively, the “formulas” to my classes were the same. Same music, same flows, same asanas. But one key ingredient was missing: there was a complete absence of anxiety, nervousness, or arousal. 

Because I wasn’t feeling excited, my classes didn’t have the same energy or punch they used to have. I wasn’t creating the experience I wanted to and knew I was capable of because I wasn’t operating at my “sweet spot.” I’d dipped too low on my levels of arousal, and as a result, my performance was suffering.

Although it wasn’t a conscious decision based on Arousal Theory at the time, I sought out ways to work my way back to the sweet spot. I’d listen to amped up music or have a personal practice before class. I’d read or write about something I was passionate about. I’d sometimes teach some killer classes after an argument or heated exchange with a family member or friend. But the biggest change I saw came from one thing: taking a break.

When I went away to school, I took the longest break I’d ever taken from teaching, about three months. Although it may seem silly, I felt anxiety about “forgetting” how to teach or losing my efficacy as a teacher during my time off. So when I returned to teach my first class at Just Be, I was feeling pretty nervous. I fumbled around with my music before class, and had to close my eyes and take some deep breaths as my students grounded. But when I opened my eyes and began teaching, I taught one of the best classes of my life.

People were laughing. People were holding hands and giggling as they practiced together. I was jumping into the air with excitement and encouraging students to just try things. They were popping up into handstands and holding their first ever crow poses. And at the end, I looked around the room and saw every student smiling in their savasana.

It’s moments like these where a powerful lesson becomes incredibly clear to me: my anxiety is not a pitfall of my existence, and in fact, sometimes it is my greatest weapon.

Feelings of anxiety are not inherently “bad” or “wrong.” They are feelings. And just like everything else in this world, too much or too little will harm you. What if, instead of feeling hindered by your emotions, you could feel empowered? What if, instead of lurking in the dark shadows of a disease you could tackle it head on? What if I told you that you have the power to make your feelings, both connotatively negative and positive, and make them work to your advantage?

Because you can. And you will. 

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