Nicola Morgan

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Questions about anxiety #11: How can anxiety be a superpower?

I had to answer this super-inspirational question from a reader today because today is publication day for No Worries – how to deal with teenage anxiety. And my aim is that it, too, will be super-inspirational!

When I recently asked you to add your questions about anxiety so that I could create a really focused set of posts in the lead up to publication, Nathan Robinson asked this question:

“For me, anxiety is a superpower, it’s that fight or flight deciding where to go next. In my adult life I’ve learned how to channel it by stepping out of comfort zone, and treating anxiety as misplaced confidence. How would you best advise teenagers to do this?”

This is a great way of looking at anxiety, with one proviso: that if anxiety appears far too often or far too strongly, it is not a superpower but something that can be quite damaging to your happiness and success. So, yes, it’s a superpower but one that needs to be controlled.

What makes it a superpower?

There are two ways we can think of anxiety as being positively powerful and powerfully positive.

  1. The cortisol and adrenalin that are released when we are anxious (or under stress) and which are responsible for the unpleasant symptoms are also what make us be able to run faster, fight more strongly, be braver, focus better and access the mental and physical peak performance that we need when we face any challenge.
    • The example I often give is that when I was chased by a goose and jumped a huge fence, I could not have done that without the anxiety. It literally added power to my legs.
  2. Worrying about things in advance is a pretty good way to make sure we are properly prepared. Think of these examples:
    • You’re worried about a performance so you think about it a lot, prepare carefully and practise.
    • You’re worried about exams, so you work hard to revise.
    • You’re worried you’ll forget something, so you write it down and put an alert on your phone.
    • You’re worried that you might be dressed differently from everyone else at the party so you ask a friend what they’re wearing.
    • You’re worried that a friend is feeling lonely/scared/sad, so you do something to make them feel better.
    • You’re worried about a friendship so you think it through carefully to work out what to do.

Unfortunately, both these ways in which anxiety can be a superpower need careful attention, as they sometimes don’t work like that. We have to make them work like that.

What might make these not work as a superpower?

You might have too much adrenalin and feel panicky instead of strong and ready.

You might have cortisol too often, leading to cortisol build-up, and that can lead to poor sleep, loss of focus, irritability, loss of self-control, low mood.

You might worry too often or too far in advance, to the extent that you spend more time worrying than actually doing useful things – such as revision or practice.

You might worry at the wrong times, for example when you’re trying to:

  • sleep
  • work
  • relax
  • eat – worrying while eating is not good as it wrecks your digestion and can prompt you to make poor food choices.

So, HOW do we make anxiety work as a superpower?

Nathan said he had “learned how to channel it by stepping out of comfort zone, and treating anxiety as misplaced confidence. How would you best advise teenagers to do this?”

First, understand that the hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, which create those feelings of jitteriness and discomfort, are going to make you stronger – mentally and physically, whatever is required. Teach this to teenagers. Teach it explicitly and often.

Second, realise that now those responses have to be controlled. In No Worries I talk about anxiety being like a guard dog – it’s fierce, scary and even dangerous, but if you, its owner, know how to control it then it not only keeps you safe but incredibly strong. Teach this to teenagers. Teach it explicitly and often.

Third, teach them the actual skills to control the over-production of anxiety.

They need five sorts of strategies and they need to learn now to select the right ones for the right situation

  • Instant actions – breathing and grounding actions that have a fast effect
  • Prevention – ways of thinking and acting that help prevent anxiety taking hold
  • Intervention – ways of thinking and acting that we use if anxiety has got hold
  • Relaxation – actions which specifically relax us, directly and physically, as well as mentally
  • Distraction – actions which might not be actually relaxing but they are useful* for taking our mind off the anxiety

*Note that you should never use a distraction if this means you are avoiding facing the anxiety. Avoidance is not the answer. But sometimes this is not the best time to be anxious so a distraction can be valid.

I fully believe that No Worries teaches teenagers (and adults) ALL the skills they need to make anxiety their superpower.

Thank you, Nathan, for giving me the idea for a positively powerful and powerfully positive post about anxiety to celebrate publication day.

Now, off you all go to buy it!

Do comment but please remember that this site is for all ages.


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