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6 Hidden Benefits of Anxiety

Can being anxiety-prone have an upside?

Key points

  • Being prone to pessimism can help a person reach acceptance more quickly.
  • Anxious people often have a "plan B," which can be helpful in many situations.
  • Worrying can be "worth it" if it leads to productive action. However, often it does not.
Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero
Source: Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero

Just like being an extrovert or introvert comes with plusses and minuses, so does being anxiety-prone. Here are some of the plusses.

1. You’re pleasantly surprised when everything is ok.

Anxious people jump to negative conclusions in ambiguous situations. For example, if you attempt to turn on your computer and it won’t start, your initial instinct might be to panic that it’s broken before you think, “It’s probably just out of battery.”

Given this thinking pattern, many of the times you jump to a negative conclusion, you’ll get to experience relief and happiness when you figure out that whatever catastrophe you’ve leaped to hasn’t happened.

Even when everything doesn’t turn out well, being prone to pessimism can help you reach acceptance more quickly. For example, if you stain an item of clothing the first time you wear it, and assume the stain probably won’t come out, you can start working through your disappointment straight away. By the time you’ve tried a couple of stain removing techniques, if they don’t work, you’ve accepted what has happened and worked through your feelings.

2. You’re pleasantly surprised when things are easier than you expected.

This point is similar to the one above but subtly different. If your anxiety causes you to expect everything will be difficult, you’ll get to experience things being easier than you expected. For example, parenting or exams.

3. Having a Plan B and C can save you stress, heartache, and money.

Someone who is anxious and is planning an outdoor wedding will have a Plan B for if it rains, even if they’re having their wedding in the desert in July. Someone who isn’t anxious may rely on there only being a 2% chance of rain in that particular month and location. If it does rain, it’s a much more difficult and significant problem to deal with on short notice than in advance.

4. Anxiety can nudge you to keep following up when you receive false reassurance.

“Something’s not right here” is a familiar feeling for anxiety-prone people. There are all sorts of occasions when we’re given reassurance that everything is or will be fine. For example, you’re told:

  • “Yes, X will be ready by the date you need it,” or
  • “Yes, the work you’ve paid for has been done correctly,” or
  • “Those symptoms are nothing to worry about.”

Anxiety can prompt you to follow up when you sense you’re being fobbed off, or if you think “It’ll probably be ok, but if it’s not, it’s much easier to deal with this now than later.” Sometimes you'll end up being really glad you doubted the information you were given initially.

Of course, there can be downsides too. Following up is time-consuming. You may end up experiencing unnecessary stress and worry, other people may find you annoying to deal with, or if you have unnecessary medical investigations due to health anxiety, you could experience iatrogenic injuries (injuries caused by medical investigations or treatment).

Try to find a good balance.

5. Worrying can occasionally help you avoid problems.

The problem with worrying is that it’s often more likely to lead to inaction than it is to useful action. People who worry a lot get so overwhelmed by their worries that it seems impossible to deal with them all, so they don’t. They just avoid.

However, there are times when worrying does lead to useful action. For example, you buy drops-and-spills insurance for your new device, and then end up using your insurance. Or, you just have greater peace of mind knowing that if your roommate spills Dr. Pepper on your device, it doesn’t matter too much.

To maximize the benefits and reduce the risks, try strategic worrying. To do this, on a case-by-case basis, evaluate whether worrying is helping you. Continuing to worry is useful if it’s leading to you taking objectively beneficial actions. For example, does worrying about getting cancer lead to you doing behaviors that objectively lower your cancer risk? Or, does worrying about being in a car accident result in you driving more safely?

If you can see a link between worrying and positive behaviors, then the mental anguish of worrying may be worth it to you. When you find yourself worrying but not taking useful action, then it’s time to identify the most important actions to take, follow through, and then move on. And, yes, it is possible to do this.

6. Concern about what other people will think of you can be a good thing.

Feeling anxiety about making a good impression on other people and wanting others to like you aren’t negatives. Sure, it’s possible to take other people’s judgments too personally. However, on balance, having a prosocial desire to be evaluated positively by others is a very good thing. It helps us have a cohesive, tolerant society—for example, if anxiety causes you to take care not to offend someone or hurt their feelings.