science of us

Why New-Job Anxiety Is Actually Good

Hello Photo: Tom Kelley Archive/Getty Images

Maybe you recently started a new job or project, in which case I recommend the tips found in this useful New York Times story: “How to Harness Your Anxiety.” Especially this line, because it’s promising but also funny on its own: “Research shows that anxiety can actually be a pathway to our best selves.” Right on.

Such research suggests, as the Times frames it, a three-pronged approach to mastering anxiety: be grateful to it for alerting us to something valuable and attention-worthy, recognize it and then call it by another name (“I’m not anxious; I’m excited, I care”) (and I feel compelled to add that Cut editor Melissa Dahl makes a memorable case for this very thing in her book Cringeworthy), and then use that positive, relabeled drive to achieve goals and meet deadlines.

An implied but unspecified fourth part of this approach also resonated with me: “Deciding you can handle your anxiety, even if it’s unwelcome, is one of the most effective things you can do to limit its escalation.” I’m envisioning anxiety, then, as a big mess, with lots of shapes, colors, and pieces radiating outward from a shifting core. But it’s a mess that can fit into a giant purse, and a giant purse is something I happen to have.

The Times story reminded me of a recent Medium essay about similarly lofty goals: “A Guide for the Quest to the Unlived Life,” by an anonymous writer/illustrator calling him or herself “More to That.” In the piece, the author compares life to a video game while addressing how to combat laziness, self-doubt, and uncertainty — life’s three “big bosses.” In particular, the author suggests reframing self-doubt (which for the sake of argument we can consider a form of anxiety) as a sign that you’re on the right path, that you care, that a given outcome matters to you.

“Underneath the rough texture of Self-Doubt’s immediate appearance,” the author writes, “you will notice that it’s made up of everything you’ve loved, everything you’ve cared deeply about, and everything you’ve failed at, as well.”

In this vein, repeating inwardly that you’re a fraud and a fool, or whatever your personal catchphrase might be, isn’t necessarily helpful until you realize that you’re signaling to yourself that you’re doing something valuable, hard, and worthwhile. So, being freaked out and totally wracked with anxiety is … good.

Why New-Job Anxiety Is Actually Good