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Anxiety

Can Good Stress Cause Anxiety?

These emotional cousins can go hand in hand, even when good things are afoot.

Trent Szmolnik/Unsplash
Source: Trent Szmolnik/Unsplash

Understanding that good things can cause stress, people sometimes wonder whether good stress can cause anxiety. It turns out that anxiety is always a risk when stress is in the picture. They can very much go hand in hand.

Consider a new job, a new relationship, a major life event, or even a thrill-seeking adventure. These are substantial stressors that can test our mettle, even turn our lives upside down in all the right ways. And yet, the adjustment to such positive realities and the stress they bring along is seldom easy and can be uncomfortable. It is hard to adjust to change and tolerate discomfort, even if it stems from a really good place.

The more stress we feel, whether good or bad, the more likely we are to feel worried and anxious. Here are 4 key ways this can happen, and what you can do to take control.

1. Anxiety means we care, a lot.

The more we care about something, the more anxiety we can feel. Motivated to protect what we care about most, anxiety can be a powerfully adaptive emotion to keep us focused on our values. It’s natural to want to do everything you can to protect something precious. Even more so if it is new and a product of good stress.

Consider the common experience in a new job, a new relationship, or a new milestone when you suddenly find yourself fearing something horrible happening that would ruin it all. Fearing future catastrophe isn’t uncommon when you feel so overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness that you doubt your feelings can last, and in turn find yourself striving to prepare. Visualizing potential loss is part of fully absorbing a new reality, much like negotiation and denial can be a normal part of grief. When you are adjusting to something major, your mind is working hard to absorb it, and your emotions can span the gamut.

2. Worrying about your experience can be slippery.

Stress can be good or bad, but that doesn’t mean our experience is pleasant or comfortable. We can be motivated by a deadline and feel stress working for us as we meet our goals and get things done. But if we stop to think too much about how hard we’re working, how much there still is to do, or how uncomfortable we feel, we might start to spook ourselves into worrying about our experience, and experience more anxiety than good stress. When we start to worry, or are afraid of our experience, good stress can transform into anxiety, and even unhealthy anxiety.

In thinking about the stress you feel—even if it’s good stress—it isn’t hard to get spooked into wondering if you can really handle it all. Disrupted sleep, crazy dreams, strained concentration, adjusting to new routines that aren’t fully functional can all lead to feelings of frazzle and concern that something might be wrong with you. You might start to wonder if what you’re feeling is normal, or even if you can keep handling it all. And this fear of your experience can be a potent driver of anxiety and escalated stress.

3. How you think about stress can protect you from anxiety.

Even if stressors are positive, the discomfort of stress should not be confused with it being harmful. Science has shown how we think about stress can determine its impact on us. Stressors, of course, vary, as do people in their relationship to it, but stress can be good for us when we choose to see it that way. Stress helps us focus on the goals we care about, stay motivated to keep stretching ourselves toward them, and can even fuel optimal performance.

4. Keeping anxiety healthy if it crops up.

Anxiety can be healthy or unhealthy depending largely on how you think about it, and what you do with it. Healthy anxiety is the kind of anxiety that comes from within, and alerts you to problems or conflicts, nudges your motivation to do something about it, and keeps you focused until the problem is solved. Healthy anxiety can keep you accountable to yourself, and focused on the things that really matter to you.

5. What to do if anxiety becomes unhealthy.

Anxiety can become unhealthy if it starts to overwhelm and harasses you with a myriad of thoughts that leave you feeling crippled, intensely fearful, or concerned for your health. If anxiety doesn’t let up no matter what you seem to do, and gets worse with avoidance, look for how secondary anxiety may be operating. Not only can it transform stress into anxiety, it can escalate other emotions including healthy anxiety into unhealthy anxiety.

When wrestling with anxiety caused by good stress, one of the most powerful things you can do to keep stress working for you is to think about how it helps you. When we choose to see the upside of stress and anxiety we are better able to embrace it, and therefore limit its negative escalating potential.

How we think about our stress actually creates how we experience it. If we aren’t afraid of it, it can’t hurt us. This is the paradox of anxiety: The more positively we see it, the more positively it affects us.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Clark's blog.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374921/

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