THE BLOG

Why Anxiety May Be Your #1 Frenemy

06/16/2015 09:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

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Have you ever had a friend that makes you tear your hair out, but you can't shake off?

Even though it would make life simpler, most of us know that we can't necessarily escape our frenemies -- or our anxieties.

A frenemy, by definition, is someone who is both a friend and enemy. They bring out the best and worst in us. The rivalry can fuel our competitive spirit and drive us to be better. At the same time, frenemies can sabotage us and amplify our insecurities. They may drive us crazy, but for various reasons we either cannot or don't want to escape them altogether. If you've ever had a frenemy, you know that this kind of love-hate relationship requires a bit of finesse to manage.

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Anxiety is a lot like a frenemy. It's an inescapable part of life. The problem is, many of us have an exclusively hate-hate relationship with it. We overlook any redeeming aspects arising from it and lump it all into our public enemy No. 1 category. While it certainly makes us uncomfortable, it can also help us grow. Even though anxiety can bring about a great deal of strife, it can serve as a motivating force, preventing us from becoming disengaged, and propelling us into action. This becomes hard to remember when we're marinating in anxiety's unsettling stew, but is essential to know so we can strategically harness the adrenaline it produces.

While frenemies are considered to be enemies pretending to be friends, anxiety can be seen as an unsuspecting friend mistakenly disguised as an enemy. We almost always see stress and anxiety as destructive, but new research is demonstrating it is more of a friend than what we might first suspect. A recent study by Daniela Kaufer at University of California Berkley demonstrates that stress can actually prime the brain for improved performance and focus.

Anxiety also reflects our values. If we're worried about something, it is often because we are tuned in to the ways our work and relationships are affecting us. In today's challenging market, the fact that we are anxious often demonstrates that we are in the mix, taking risks, giving it our all, and may simply find ourselves over-stimulated because we are so driven to bring impact. We often mistake anxiety as a moral failing or sign of weakness-when in reality, it's actually much more likely a sign of courage and conscientiousness.

Anxiety may well be our No. 1 Frenemy. Understanding it's distinctive characteristics and how we can make friends with it' helpful aspects and ward off attacks from its antagonistic side can lead to greater self-awareness and growth. In order to cultivate a healthier love-hate relationship with it, we need to examine its opposing qualities:

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The Friend Side:

1. Keeps us laser focused. Stress and anxiety often arise from "eustress", which raises our adrenaline levels so that we are awake, engaged and ready to perform. This energy keeps us focused, on task and motivated to barrel through our checklists and remain productive.

2. Gives us helpful advice. Even though anxiety's advice is often dramatic and inaccurate, we shouldn't toss out what it's telling us entirely. When our brains and bodies go into overdrive, anxiety often gives us a clear message that we may need to make some changes so we can sustain ourselves in the long run. Ignoring anxiety's warning signs doesn't do us any favors. While we may not have to listen to all of its exaggerations (anxiety can certainly get carried away in the heat of the moment) we can take heed and slow down to evaluate what may need to be tweaked to avoid stress saturation and burnout.

3. Facilitates growth. Anxiety is a powerful teacher, often stretching us beyond what we think we can handle. It reminds us we're gritty and tough, and capable of bouncing back even when the odds seem to be stacked against us. When we work through difficulties, we become more emotionally nimble and adept at coping with upcoming challenges. This can help us sustain excellence with our respective responsibilities and roles.

The Enemy Side:

1. Inflicts bodily harm. When we let anxiety hang around too long, we often unknowingly invite a sleuth of additional unwanted guests-including disruptive health issues into our lives. Stress-related illness is running rampant in the US and across the globe, and we are now more at risk for lifestyle illness than ever before. Anxiety can make us sick if we spend too much time with it.

2. Sabotages our relationships. Anxiety perpetuates insecurity. When we feel insecure, it can bring out the worst in us. We are more inclined to take things personal, act needy and find our fuses become shorter. This has a detrimental effect on our communication and connection with our loved ones and colleagues.

3. Leads to exhaustion and burnout. When stress-related cortisol continually pumps through our systems, we become depleted and wiped out. While adrenaline can be helpful, over time heighted amounts can be damaging. Burnout leads to suboptimal outcomes, and we can become disengaged, cynical and stuck. We lose needed momentum and clarity towards our goals and purpose.

Anxiety and stress are paradoxical -- with two distinctive sides that can not only deliver ill health and harm, as conventionally understood, but also bring about momentum and enhance our lives in ways we often overlook.

We can't be casual about our relationship with anxiety. We have to take its destructive tendencies seriously, without dismissing its redeeming qualities, either. Like our relationships, when we better understand the positive and negative dimensions, we become more agile and equipped to navigate the push and pull they bring.

Anxiety, like our frenemies, can propel us into action or leave us perpetually worried and with our hearts beating out of our chest. Which aspects of anxiety bring out the best in you, helping you perform better? Befriending this side of anxiety can facilitate positive change. Is the enemy side of anxiety eroding your sense of confidence and well-being? If so, what actions can you take to set boundaries and shield yourself from taking the bait of the unhelpful advice it's trying to feed you?