3 Reasons Why Anxiety Is Good For You
Worrying isn't always such a bad thing.
Posted May 20, 2019
In 1947, W. H. Auden published an obscure poem called “The Age of Anxiety” — a title that has resonated through the years as a perfect distillation of the uncertainties of contemporary living. Perhaps we’re hearing that phrase even more often these days, as the United States has come to be known as the most anxious nation on Earth. As of late 2017, almost 20% of American adults had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder over the preceding year. The lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders in the American population is even higher, at over 31%. Several studies suggest that anxiety has been on the rise over the past few years, too: the American Psychiatric Association recently released a poll showing that our anxiety increased measurably between 2016 and 2017, and again between 2017 and 2018.
For the few, lucky human beings who don’t immediately understand what it’s like to feel anxious, consider the feeling you get at a job interview: your palms are sweaty, your stomach is in knots, you feel agitated and fatigued at the same time, and you can’t concentrate. You haven’t slept well in days. Your muscles are tense and achy, which makes you irritable with the people you talk to. Highly anxious people have to cope with these job-interview-level feelings every day. Anxiety is very different from fear, too: while fear could be described as the feeling you’d get while facing down a man-eating tiger, anxiety is the feeling you might have while wandering through the jungle, wondering if there is a tiger hiding behind the next tree.
But as difficult and unpleasant as daily anxiety can be — as those who have panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or social anxiety disorder know all too well — anxiety can also be good for you. (No one benefits from chronic or excessive anxiety.) Situational anxiety, if it’s proportionate to the circumstances in which it arises, can have quite a positive impact. As long as you are able to keep your anxiety levels in check, using the self-care methods that work best for you, you should be able to experience its benefits.
First and foremost, anxiety is built into our primate origins as a warning system. This is why it’s so hard to shut anxious feelings off: they are hard-wired into our neurons. Anxiety helps us detect and attend to potential threats so that we can avoid danger. In the short term, anxiety can keep you at a heightened state of alert, allowing you to react more quickly when urgent dangers arise — like when you’re driving anxiously in the rain, and you find yourself responding immediately to erratic changes in traffic patterns. Even vague, unfocused anxiety can function as a soft alarm bell for longer-term dangers: if you’re feeling unsettled within your marriage or romantic relationship, for instance, your low-level anxiety may be calling your attention to a problem that you aren’t fully attending to. And the warning properties of anxiety may also help you focus your thoughts on big decisions, like buying a house or deciding whether or not to move to a new city. Imagine feeling absolutely no anxiety over life-changing choices like these; the odds are, you’d breeze through the decisions in such a facile way, with minimal thought or consideration, that you’d end up missing something important.
Situational anxiety is also good for enhancing motivation and boosting performance levels. Just before crunch time — say, at a college sporting event — a fair amount of anxiety can be a very positive thing. Research indicates that student-athletes who feel anxiety are able to perform better in their events — and on college exams! — than those who denied feeling worried. (Sometimes anxiety can improve your memory, as well.) This makes intuitive sense: if you’re anxious about an upcoming event, like a test or a race, you may be motivated to work harder to get ready for it. And when crunch time arrives, the physiological features of anxiety — the action of your adrenal glands and sympathetic nervous system — can improve our ability to carry out athletic feats, or give us a burst of strength. Cognitively, we also benefit from an increase in alertness and presence in the moment. At significant moments when performance becomes an issue, the right amount of anxiety will help us do that much better.
Lastly, in addition to its cognitive and physical benefits, anxiety also conveys a psychological one: an improvement in empathy. Remembering the stressful times you’ve been through may help enhance your perspective on others when they have similar difficulties. It can offer you insight into what the significant people in your life may be feeling when they, too, start to worry. Recognizing anxiety in others should thus inform your ability to respond appropriately, with gentleness or understanding. It’s also been said that the capacity for taking another person’s perspective, and to offer empathy, can improve one’s leadership abilities. Think about it: a sensible awareness of the many things that might go wrong, the resulting tendency to think more prudently, plus the deep ability to sense the needs of the people who depend on you, may in fact be a solid recipe for responsible leadership.
So in the end, the anxiety you feel may not actually be so bad for you, after all — as long as you can distinguish between appropriate, situation-specific anxiety and chronic, flooding worries. Recent research supports this view, indicating that the ability to experience stressful life events as challenges — not dangers or hazards — your anxiety may convey a burst of energy or an uptick increase in motivation. Perhaps instead of telling yourself not to worry, you should ask yourself if you are worrying the right amount.
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