Healthy anxiety (concern) is your ally. Concern is based on rational thinking in spite of an unpleasant imagined situation, which allows your emotions and behaviors to work for you rather than against you. Concern motivates you to get things done, and to cope with the problems that can’t be solved. When you obsess and ruminate about the future, interpret it as potentially physically and/or emotionally harmful, and think irrational thoughts about it, you develop unhealthy anxiety (anxiety). Anxiety is debilitating because it works against you. It makes you want to avoid the situation that would be in your best interest to confront, and gives you debilitating physical health symptoms along with it.
Picture yourself as a graduate student anxious about getting a failing grade on an important exam. Failing the exam is undesirable to you, so your concern about passing will increase your motivation to do whatever you reasonably can to minimize the likelihood of that happening to you. Since concern is based on rational thoughts, it gives a signal to your body’s arousal system providing you with more alertness and energy necessary to put towards extra hours of studying for the exam. This new energy and alertness is more than you’d normally have if you weren’t concerned about passing.
Anxiety on the other hand is detrimental because it’s based on irrational thinking. The irrational beliefs make your body take the energy needed for proper digestion to use to power your feet to run from whatever you’re anxious about. You’re unable to digest food properly, and your heightened arousal system surges with adrenaline which negatively impacts your ability to fall asleep the night before the exam. When overwhelmed with intrusive irrational thoughts the logic and reasoning part of your brain becomes less accessible. This would negatively impact your performance on the exam. The sensation of anxiety can also manifest into procrastination, your mind going blank, and make you want to avoid the exam all together.
The solution to keeping anxiety as your ally rather than your enemy is to monitor your thoughts. Catch, reevaluate and replace irrational thoughts with rational ones to go from unhealthy anxiety to healthy concern. Obsessing and ruminating about your imagined shortcomings rarely helps you maintain a healthy negative emotional state. It also doesn’t make you a better problem-solver. Deep breathing helps give your body necessary oxygen to calm your arousal system. Picturing pleasant and happy images in combination with rational thinking desensitizes your arousal system. Telling yourself rational counter statements such as “I can handle this,” and “It’s not the end of the world if I fail, it would just be unfortunate” are some examples of helpful rational counter statements to stay in a concern mindset.
Just remember that it’s impossible to avoid all negative emotions all together. When faced with adversity you’re not going to feel good about it, nor is feeling good about it advantageous for you. Feeling happy all the time is unrealistic and doesn’t motivate you to fix problems. As long as you continue to think rational, you’ll be able to restructure your brain to work for you rather than against you. Rational thinking will keep you in a healthy negative emotion that will not only aid you in getting stuff done and coping, but will also change your behaviors to be in alignment with just that. If you’re going to feel a negative emotion at all, why not strive to just feel healthy ones?