Editing a speech so many times that when you’re about to present, you botch all your important lines. Stressing over your first-date outfit because it just isn’t perfect — to the point that you’re now late…and more frazzled than before. Drawing that same illustration a third time to get it to look exactly the way you want but ultimately ripping the page out of your sketchbook, frustrated and, well, over it.
If any of these scenarios feel even remotely familiar, you could be dealing with a crushing dose of what I call nervous energy. But the good news is: This type of seemingly negative energy can actually give you an edge when it comes to success. I’m so passionate about helping people understand and achieve this that I recently wrote an entire book about it, Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety. In it, you’ll find nine techniques that will enable you to not only be more successful despite your nervous energy, but because of it.
What Is Nervous Energy, Anyway?
Nervous energy is that extra bit of conscientiousness, typically as a result of adrenaline, that drives you to triple-check that your oven is turned off, or that your cover letter is grammatically perfect, or that your dinner party (when we’re finally able to safely have those again) is thought out to a T. All of those are good things, of course — until your nerves go on overdrive and lead you to stress out so much that you hinder your ability to perform. That shot of adrenaline gets converted into cortisol (a stress hormone) rather than being used productively.
Unsurprisingly, people who have nervous energy tend to be perfectionists, the detail-oriented, often Type-A folks who are really hard on themselves (and sometimes others) to get things exactly right. People who have generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or have obsessive tendencies without the medical diagnosis, also usually fall into this category. And while these groups may think of their condition as annoying (at best) or crippling (at worst), the exciting thing that they may not realize is that their anxious thoughts have an incredibly healthy, positive function: to notice areas for improvement.
What’s even more exciting is that utilizing that nervous energy as a boost in chasing your goals — versus taking steam away from them — is actually quite simple. One of my favorite techniques in my book, based on years of working with many high-functioning yet anxious clients, is called Thought Replacement. This method can help you turn the mess that is anxiety into momentum in real time.
How to Try Thought Replacement at Home
Next time your anxious mind starts acting up (like tonight, when you start harping on yourself for, say, screwing up a recipe), here’s your game plan:
- Congratulate yourself for having anxious thoughts.
Yes, I said congratulate! It might sound counterintuitive to applaud yourself when you’re feeling negative feelings, but truly the best way to interrupt that self-bashing spiral is by patting yourself on the back for being aware of your tendency to pick yourself apart. This is the moment before the date when you tell yourself, “Wow, I’m hearing myself insult the way my body looks in these clothes. At least I’m a self-aware and conscious person for realizing I’m thinking that way.” Remember, your anxiety is coming from a positive place — of wanting to be the best version of yourself — so shift your perspective to feeling good about yourself for having it.
- Replace the anxious thoughts you have with reassuring ones.
If you’re a high-functioning person with obsessive tendencies, chances are, you have the same anxious thoughts on repeat. Your mind has more or less decided something isn’t good enough — be it your hair, your skin, your business chops — and so it cycles through the same worrying, self-doubting script every time that “thing” is on your conscience. That’s where a technique called Thought Replacement comes in. It zeroes in on the specific thoughts that are getting in your way and prepares you with deliberately chosen, constructive phrases to replace them. To stick with the first date example, if you’re obsessing over your hair before you walk out the door, then think, this person is obviously attracted to me or they wouldn’t have asked me on a date. If you always worry about not being vocal enough in meetings, then think, I wouldn’t be invited into this discussion if my team didn’t feel I belonged here. I can speak up just when I feel I have something to contribute.
Keep in mind, Thought Replacement is not always the most natural-feeling thing. And that’s OK, in the same way that if you slouch for most of your life and then suddenly start sitting up straight that would feel unnatural too. That doesn’t make proper posture any less healthy or positive for you. The same applies here: You were in a counterproductive place before. Now you have the stark awareness that you’re doing things differently, that you’re making real changes. This should make you feel great.
The more you practice this two-step process, the easier it will come to you, until eventually the positive thoughts become more automatic than the negative ones you used to have. When that happens, all that nervous energy starts to feed a healthy obsessive thought cycle — one that builds confidence and motivation to go for your goals.
Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist, best known to audiences as Dr. Chloe, and author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety” (St. Martin’s Essentials, 2021). She heads a successful private practice in New York City that focuses primarily on relationship issues, stress to help high achievers. Carmichael is on the Advisory Board for Women’s Health Magazine and writes an expert blog for Psychology Today. She is a member in good standing of the American Psychological Association and the National Register of Health Psychologists, an elite membership for psychologists with the highest standards of education and board scores. As an expert in anxiety, Carmichael has taught stress management techniques at Fortune 500 companies as well as in her own private practice. While a doctoral student, Carmichael presented a poster at the Anxiety Disorder Association of America, and continues to be a thought leader in anxiety treatment today. She launched an online anxiety treatment program, Anxiety Tools, which has users throughout the United States and around the world including Japan, Dubai, U.A.E., Korea, France and Russia. As a certified yoga instructor, Carmichael is truly an expert in both the science and meditation side to anxiety treatment. Her holistic approach integrates a special blend of techniques that have been shown to help people overcome anxiety. Carmichael holds a master’s degree and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Long Island University and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, with a bachelor’s degree and departmental honors in psychology from Columbia University in New York. She completed her clinical training at Lenox Hill Hospital and Kings County Hospital. Carmichael has taught undergraduate courses at Long Island University and the City University of New York; and served as the psychologist for The New York School of Podiatric Medicine.