What Anxiety Can Do for You
Anxiety may seem like your worst enemy, but it's more like a frenemy.
Posted Jun 16, 2015
Have you ever had a friend who makes you want to tear your hair out, but you still can’t seem to shake off? Even though it would simplify life, most of us know that we can’t always escape our frenemies—or our anxieties.
A frenemy is someone who is both a friend and enemy, and who brings out the best and the worst in us. For example, our rivalry may fuel our competitive spirit and drive us to improve—or they can sabotage us and amplify our insecurities. They may drive us crazy, but for various reasons we either cannot—or don’t want to—escape them altogether.
Some say that maintaining such connections is more personally or socially beneficial than declaring such individuals to be full-fledged enemies; it's supposedly easier to keep someone in check when you're being nice. If you’ve ever had a frenemy, you know that managing this kind of love-hate relationship requires a bit of finesse.
Anxiety is a lot like a frenemy. It’s an inescapable part of life, but the problem is that many of us have an exclusively hate-hate relationship with it. We overlook any redeeming aspects that stem from it and lump everything into the Enemy column. But while it makes us uncomfortable, anxiety can also help us grow. It can serve as a motivating force, preventing us from becoming disengaged and propelling us into action. This becomes hard to remember when we are marinating in anxiety’s unsettling stew, but is essential to know so we can strategically harness the adrenaline it produces.
While frenemies are typically seen as enemies pretending to be friends, anxiety can be seen as a friend mistakenly disguised as an enemy. We almost always see stress and anxiety as destructive, but new research demonstrates that it is more of a friend than what we might suspect. A recent study by Daniela Kaufer at University of California-Berkeley demonstrates that stress can actually prime the brain for improved performance and focus.
Anxiety can also reflect our values. If we’re worried about something, it is often because we are tuned in to the ways our work and relationships are affecting us. In today’s challenging job market, the fact that we are anxious often demonstrates that we are in the mix and taking risks, and may simply find ourselves over-stimulated because we are so driven to deliver an impact. We often mistake anxiety as a moral failing or sign of weakness, when in reality it’s actually much more likely a sign of courage and conscientiousness.
For greater self-awareness and growth, understand how to make friends with anxiety's helpful aspects, and how to manage its antagonistic side. To cultivate a healthier love-hate relationship with anxiety, we need to examine closely its opposing, distinctive characteristics:
The Friend Side:
- Keeps us laser focused. Stress and anxiety often arise from “eustress,” which raises our adrenaline levels so that we are awake, engaged, and ready to perform. This energy keeps us focused and motivated enough to barrel through our checklists and remain productive.
- Provides helpful advice. Even though anxiety’s advice is often dramatic and inaccurate, we shouldn’t completely dismiss it. When our brains and bodies go into overdrive, anxiety sends a clear message that we may need to make some changes so we can sustain ourselves long-term. Ignoring anxiety’s warning signs doesn’t do us any favors. We may not have to listen to everything (anxiety can certainly get carried away in the heat of the moment). We can, however, slow down and evaluate what to tweak to prevent stress saturation and burnout.
- Facilitates growth. Anxiety is a powerful teacher, often stretching us beyond what we think we can handle. It reminds us that we’re gritty, tough, and capable of bouncing back even when the odds seem stacked against us. When we work through difficulties, we become more emotionally nimble and adept at coping with looming challenges. This can help us sustain excellence with our respective responsibilities and roles.
The Enemy Side:
- Inflicts bodily harm. When we let anxiety hang around too long, we can unknowingly invite additional unwanted guests, such as disruptive health issues. Anxiety can make us sick if we spend too much time with it: Stress-related illness is rampant in the U.S. and across the globe, and we are more at risk for lifestyle illness than ever before.
- Sabotages our relationships. Anxiety perpetuates insecurity, which can bring out the worst in us. When we are anxious, we're more inclined to take things personally, act needy, and be quick-tempered. This harms our communication and connection with our loved ones and colleagues.
- Clobbers us with exhaustion and burnout. When stress-related cortisol continuously pumps through our systems, we feel depleted and wiped out. While adrenaline can be helpful, heighted amounts can be damaging over time. Burnout leads to suboptimal outcomes, and we can feel disengaged, cynical, and stuck. We lose needed momentum and clarity toward our goals and purpose.
We can’t be casual about our relationship with anxiety: We have to take its destructive tendencies seriously, without dismissing its redeeming qualities. Like any relationship, when we better understand the positive and negative dimensions, we become more agile and better equipped to navigate the push and pull they bring.
Anxiety, like our frenemies, can propel us into action or leave us perpetually worried with our hearts beating out of our chest. Which aspects of anxiety bring out the best in you? Befriending this side can facilitate positive change. Is the enemy side of anxiety eroding your sense of confidence and well-being? If so, what actions can you take to set boundaries and shield yourself from taking the bait of the unhelpful advice it’s trying to feed you?