Can Anxiety Be Good for You?
When we meditate away social anxiety, we may also lose our psychological edge.
Posted Jul 30, 2019
I’ve been asked recently to design interventions that build resilience to social anxiety, which makes plenty of sense for those who experience anxiety as a debilitating disorder that prevents participation in normal daily activities like attending school or seeking a promotion at work.
Estimates are that 3% of women and 2% of men will be diagnosed with clinically significant levels of social anxiety at any one time, with as many as 13% of us affected during our lifetime. It’s interesting that while social anxiety usually appears as social withdrawal in the United States, in different parts of the world like China and Japan, social anxiety also includes feelings of shame and worry about making others uncomfortable. Regardless of what social anxiety looks like, we are talking about it much more.
This heightened focus should be good for those seeking treatment, but for many others with non-clinical anxiety, excessive focus on feelings of discomfort may be doing us more harm than good.
These days, we seem to be experiencing “up-criming” when it comes to mental health problems. Up-criming is a term criminologists use to describe fairly minor infractions of the law being treated as more and more serious over time (jaywalking, using recreational drugs, minor acts of violence like a teenager throwing food at a parent, etc). At what point did we come to label all social anxiety as bad?
We need to step back and embrace the messiness of life. That is the focus of a great new book by Ronald Purser who wrote McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Purser, a Professor of Management at San Francisco State University, has been skeptical of claims by proponents of meditation that individual change is the solution to social ills.
He isn’t saying a meditative practice isn’t effective, but he is saying that meditation and other forms of self-help can miss the mark. If we are socially anxious it could be that we have good reasons to be. Our social relations may be toxic, or the opportunities open to us may be blocked by the small-mindedness of others. In both situations, experiencing some anxiety may actually help us to perceive danger and injustice.
In other words, anxiety is a natural motivator to look before we leap into new situations, or a clue that we should change the world around us to make it a safer place to be (for more on this, see my previous blog “Are you a self-help skeptic?”).
For all these reasons, it worries me when I hear motivational speakers (especially those bent on having us all meditate) promise us a life of unfrazzled bliss where no thought is too random and no emotion too big to control. They tell me that I have to not only show self-compassion for all my failings but have to adapt to the toxic stress caused by others (like a bad boss at work or an incompetent teacher at school) and show daily gratitude for everything that happens. Am I the only one who finds this state of syrupy happiness counter to a life lived with the edgy exuberance of imminent failure?
When it comes to anxiety, I actually want to feel the dis-ease that comes with being in uncomfortable situations. I want to feel that catalyst which motivates me to push a little harder, sometimes failing, but enjoying the satisfaction of knowing that I am growing. I also want to feel indignation and anger when I am treated badly.
I don’t want to adapt. I want to feel sufficiently “put out” and anxious to know that something is wrong in the world around me. My anxiety helps me to protect myself or be creative enough to work around situations that make me feel excluded. While some anxiety is certainly all in our heads, and we really have nothing to fear, I meet too many people who want to mask the very emotions that are a normal and healthy part of life.
I think it is time we embrace anxiety and appreciate it for what it is: a motivational tool that pushes us to be our better selves and keeps us safe when we are too far out of our comfort zones.
To be clear, there are plenty of great cognitive behavioral therapy programs that can help if anxiety is excessive. You’ll know it is mostly in your head if you live in a reasonably safe space with plenty of opportunities to be your best self and people around you who want you to be a part of their lives.
If that describes your world and you are still anxious to spend time in social situations then there are plenty of workbooks available at your local bookstore and hundreds of online apps that can make you more mindful and outgoing. But before you work too hard on changing yourself, don’t forget that a racing mind can also be the source of innovative ideas when random thoughts bump into each other.
Personally, I like the feeling of anxiety in situations where I should be wary or downright afraid of the people and places that surround me. In the past, these intuitions have kept me out of harm’s way. These feelings have also inspired some of my most insightful work.
Maybe it’s time we were less mindful and more anxious. Just a little bit. That edge may be what we need to find sustaining happiness, success at work, and better relationships.
Let me give one final example of what I mean. There is a concept in the field of resilience (my area of research) called the ‘resilience paradox’ which says that a false sense of capacity to adapt to a natural disaster can actually blind us to the need to prevent the conditions which make the disaster more likely to occur in the first place.
For instance, if we are not anxious enough about increasingly erratic weather patterns and other aspects of climate change, will we be motivated to change the human-environment interactions that make even worse living conditions likely in the years to come?
If you enjoy yoga, love to meditate, and appreciate attending motivational talks that promise daily bliss, then fully embrace these as your “thing” and be happy with your choice. But if these things become an excuse to avoid all stress in your life, or even worse, distracts you from doing what needs to be done to transform bad situations and make them better (rather than acquiescing to toxic stress and letting it persist) then maybe a different kind of relationship with anxiety is needed.
Embrace anxiety. In the right dose, it may actually be good for your mental health and keep you safe.
Leichsenring, F., & Leweke, F. (2017). Social Anxiety Disorder. New England Journal of Medicine, 376(23), 2255–2264. http://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMcp1614701
Purser, R. E. (2019). McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. London, UK: Repeater.