Turning Anxiety into Hope

As a sensitive young child, I thought how wonderful it would be if I could learn a skill I thought of as “mood control.” I imagined there were evolved beings who had their emotional states under control. I hoped (and still hope) to become one of them someday. Nevertheless, I have found myself experiencing much anxiety in life, especially recently.

Anxiety is what we think and feel when we imagine something bad will happen in the future. It involves feelings of dread fueled by worried thinking and catastrophizing beliefs. Uncertainty supports anxiety and makes it all the harder to bear.

There is so much to be anxious about these days—climate chaos, including warming and rising seas (which they say will dissuade our beloved whales from coming here), serious drought, social unrest, fascist campaigns against democracy, and the pandemic. Therapists and counselors are reporting an unsurpassed avalanche of anxiety in their patients.

Anxiety is generally treated with medication—like a disease we must just eliminate. And we self-medicate with various substances or technological distractions to become comfortably numb. But as I learned from Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwari, whom I interviewed on my Pathways Podcast, we can’t get rid of anxiety… and that’s OK. (Listen to our conversation here.)

In her book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad), Dr. Tracy describes how anxiety provides a serviceable alarm system that points to what we care about most. As she puts it, “Anxiety trains your attention on something important. It tells you that bad things could happen but haven’t happened yet and that you still have the time and ability to make it right and get what you want.” It’s a necessary survival mechanism we can’t eliminate. Learning to cope with it differently is the real solution.

Dr. Tracy points out that anxiety’s flipside is hope. Both are appraisals of an uncertain future, except that hope is proactive and optimistic. How can we empower hope instead of fear? A bit of humility helps because none of us can predict the future. Beyond that, it’s primarily a matter of changing our orientation. We can commit to making things better by taking steps to change what we can and accepting the things we can’t. Listening to anxiety is the first step, followed by shifting to believing there can be wisdom in what anxiety tells us.

As I wrote in my book, Intuitive Intelligence, we need to always upgrade our beliefs. Instead of freaking and numbing out, let’s carefully examine the negative things we tell ourselves and the beliefs behind them. Only then do we cultivate hope by switching to more visionary beliefs and fine-tuning our creative capacity to manage, adapt, and cope with uncertainty.

Ram Dass correctly taught that the key to happiness is to be here now, butour remarkable ability to imagine the future also confers immense advantages. Anxiety or hope, which motivate and energize us to care about what lies ahead, help prepare us for anything. When we channel our energy toward pursuing and prioritizing a purpose, it naturally becomes hopeful. When Obama wrote about “the audacity of hope” he showed how hope is a form of courage. Yes, we can make things better. Just believing that you can, you become happier and more effective. So, friends, let’s do our part and never give up on life!