09/21/2016 02:28 EDT | Updated 09/21/2016 02:29 EDT

Learning To Cope With Just The Right Amount Of Anxiety

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Stressed student studying for exam in classroom

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As the long lazy dance of summer hastens toward the quickstep of fall, many of us start to feel jitters in anticipation of the new season. "Back to School" signs beckon, and remind us of the various goals we will strive toward over the next several months. Feelings of nervousness are normal in this transition, propelling us forward, as we all make best efforts to move into autumn gracefully. Any change in our lives brings about feelings of anticipation and nervousness -- even positive and happy change. And this is OK. It is normal -- and even healthy.

From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety is a helpful and adaptive emotion. For thousands of years, anxiety has motivated humans to act (and survive) in the face of danger. In 2016, anxiety still helps us to face challenges and do battle in our daily lives. It motivates us to do our best and move toward reaching our full potential, in whatever it is we choose to focus on and try.

It is both a psychological and physiological emotion.

Think about it this way, if we experienced no anxiety before the big test or presentation, chances are, we would not be able to do the best we could. Our performance would be lackluster. Often, it's that little surge of adrenaline that takes us to the top -- or over the top. And by no means should we wish it away.

The problem is, though, for some of us, the amount of anxiety we experience in a situation does not fit, or match, the fear -- or threat -- in that situation. And we become paralyzed. For example, we may fear that we will fail the test, despite adequate preparation and never having failed a test before, and we panic so much that our results suffer. Or, we may fear that we will we be judged negatively by our peers at a social event, so much so, that we avoid going altogether. We miss out on a chance to make new friends, or have an experience that we could have really enjoyed.

So how much is too much? And what do we do when anxiety starts getting in the way of our goals, instead of moving us toward them? Well, the first step is to notice and acknowledge the anxiety. It is both a psychological and physiological emotion.

Often, the first clue we get that we are feeling anxious is a physical one -- our heart beats faster, our face flushes, our breathing becomes shallow, we may feel shaky, sweaty or lightheaded. The trick is to recognize this as anxiety, and then to try some relaxation strategies. We may already have some that work for us. If not, there is a plethora of options and suggestions available through books and the internet.

The next step is to try our best to figure out what exactly it is that we are feeling anxious about. This can be difficult as the feeling can be very overwhelming, distorting our vision, so to speak, and making it hard to see what is activating us.

For example, is it a thought, or an image in our mind, that activated this very physical response? Did we just see something that reminded us of a painful time in our lives that triggered a negative memory?

Once we identify the thought or image, we can ask ourselves whether it is in keeping with reality. In most of all cases, the answer is no -- we are likely negatively distorting our experience -- or even catastrophizing -- but it just feels very true. This can be hard to be aware of. It takes some work and practice. Once we become familiar and good at this exercise, we learn that we actually have a lot more control over our thoughts and emotional experience than we might have thought.

We will still experience feelings of anxiety, but with practice, we can become much better able at putting the lid on this emotion, before it becomes out of control, working against us. The ultimate aim is to learn to work with just the right amount of anxiety that will move us forward through the multitude of challenges and changes that we will experience, in an effective and optimal way.

So, we can quickstep our way through the days ahead, perhaps with a little stumble here and there. So we can dance with the opportunities that present themselves, and overcome inevitable challenges, allowing us to see change and transition not as something to fear or dread, but rather, as part of the desirable richness that each passing season brings to our lives.

Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email

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