How to transform anxious thoughts into productive actions

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By Nicole Spector

With the fervor of the midterm elections, the time change, the barrage of tragic news stories in addition to just, you know, normal life stuff, many of us are feeling more anxious than usual.

Though some of us suffer from anxiety disorders, often requiring treatment, anxiety in itself isn’t abnormal; it’s actually quite natural, existing in part to motivate us to get out in the world and do our best.

“Everyone has a little bit of anxiety,” says Dr. Kate Cummins, a licensed clinical psychologist. “It’s the reason you get up and out of bed and ready in the mornings when your alarm goes off [and] the reason you prepare well for an interview or meeting at work.”

We spoke with mental health experts to learn their best strategies for transforming anxious thoughts into tools that can be, as Cummins says, “your best friend in performance rather than a detriment, and move forward into action instead of allowing it to block you.”

Take a few deep breaths right away

It would be lovely if we could just take our anxiety and immediately shift it into productivity, but it’s best we calm down first.

“Once the [anxious] thought has been noticed, I like to ask my clients to take a few deep breaths,” says Melissa Coats, a licensed professional counselor. “This helps calm the body and let it know it is not in immediate danger. Anxiety is fear and those anxious thoughts are trying to protect us from something horrible. So instead of being hard on ourselves about these thoughts, thank them for what they are trying to do and make a decision on how to proceed in a much clearer state of mind.”

Download a meditation/mindfulness app

“Apps like Headspace or Calm are interactive, supportive, and help to hold you accountable,” says Katie Krimer, a licensed clinical social worker. “They are an active way to productively address your anxious thoughts and increase self-awareness. At best, your anxiety is minimized, at worst, you’ve taken some time to gently observe how busy your mind is.”

Get grounded in your space

Natalie Finegood Goldberg, a licensed marriage and family therapist recommends practicing physical grounding.

“This means shifting out of your head and into your body,” Goldberg explains. “This can be done by throwing a tennis ball against a wall, standing in place and shifting your weight back and forth, or any act that allows you to focus on the connection of your body to anything physical. In doing so, you create a shift in the nervous system that allows your body to slow down so you can return to a healthy equilibrium that allows for rational thought.”

Shift your thoughts to your surroundings

Another way of grounding yourself is by shifting your attention to your physical surroundings.

“When we are engaging in a lot of anxious thinking, we are over-identifying with those thoughts and getting caught up in their content,” says Krimer. “The practice of stepping back and acknowledging objective reality (i.e. labeling items in the room using your five senses), it can help create space from those thoughts.”