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Relationship: No anxiety? Not possible

Many people think that they are supposed to live anxiety-free. Not so. Anxiety is part of the human condition. We all experience it on almost a daily basis in one form or another, and in some ways it can be helpful.

It's important to realize that we grow most through meeting the challenges of difficult and painful experiences. Something that intimidated us, once overcome, contributes to our growth and confidence.

Hey, don't get me wrong: I'd love an anxiety-free existence, but where would any of us be without worry? It does keep us safe in a number of ways; we avoid stepping off cliffs because we know we can get hurt.

Anxiety also serves us in smaller ways, letting us know that something isn't quite right so that we can make appropriate adjustments. Those little signals in the back of your brain are a combination of anxiety and intuition trying to get your attention, to make sure you are heading in the right direction.

The trick here is to learn to use your anxiety in positive ways. The first step is to see what the payoff of an anxious moment (or interval) might be for you. Perhaps it's telling you that this assignment isn't quite right for you or that you really can't afford that new flat-screen television. I think it's wise to at least look at your feelings before you leap.

The flip side of the coin is that excitement and anxiety feel exactly the same to our bodies. And it's quite common for people to feel both excited and scared at the same time. Thrill rides at amusement parks (and first dates) give you that excited/scared feeling. It's perfectly normal -- and usually fun.

A number of folks do suffer from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or panic attacks, and that's a different story. Most of us don't worry about normal daily activities on a regular basis. If you do, and have been worrying like this for six months or more, you really need to get a checkup, a correct diagnosis and treatment, if necessary.

At times, anxiety can shake you to your core. Your confidence evaporates, your ability to communicate is hampered and your thinking process is blinded by fear. Learning how to avoid it, control it and deal with it appropriately is a set of skills that will serve you for the rest of your life.

One of the best tools is to imagine the worst, then imagine the best and finally imagine what is most likely to happen and hold on to that thought.

When anxiety strikes, it helps to remember that you have dealt with similar events well, and that you have the tools to get through this one. Sit down (or pull over), take a few deep breaths and think through what's worrying you. Chances are you already have the answers you need, and once you calm down a little, you will see them much more clearly.

(Dr. Barton Goldsmith, a marriage and family therapist in Westlake, Calif., is the author, most recently, of "Emotional Fitness at Work." He also hosts "Emotional Fitness" on NPR. E-mail him at barton@bartongoldsmith.com.)