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Why I Love Anxiety, and You Should Too

Anxiety and fear are a gift. Here's why.

Harriet Lerner
Source: Harriet Lerner

Okay, the truth is that I hate anxiety. But my professional and personal experience has taught me that I also need to honor and respect it. Let's consider the good things about those "negative emotions," and why we need to see anxiety and fear as a blessing—and not just a curse.

Throughout evolutionary history, anxiety and fear have helped every species to be wary and to survive. Fear can signal us to act or, alternatively, to resist the impulse to act. It can help us to make wise, self-protective choices in and out of relationships, where we might otherwise sail mindlessly along, ignoring signs of trouble. Anxiety can force a more honest self-appraisal, including a good look at whether we are living in accord with our core values and beliefs.

A good dose of anxiety about our mental or physical well-being may motivate us to seek help or make a difficult change. A health scare, for example, may get us to eat differently, exercise more, and reorder our priorities. A reminder of our mortality can awaken us from a psychic slumber and inspire us to be more clear-eyed and awake, readier to figure out what really matters.

If we don’t pay attention to a gentle warning, we may get a more insistent message that we need to make a significant change on behalf of our own well-being. Perhaps we may need to do less—or more—for a family member, pursue a passion, or leave a job that is slowly killing us.

Perhaps you can think of additional ways that anxiety is a useful emotion. For example, anxiety can tap you on the shoulder or deliver a bone-shaking jolt, if you happen to contemplate robbing the nearby convenience store—or consider any other behavior that fundamentally violates your values and beliefs. The capacity to feel anxiety plays an important developmental role in the establishment of what we call “conscience” and the capacity to experience healthy guilt. In this regard, anxiety can work as a kind of social glue, spurring us to treat others fairly and kindly even when our impulses are less than benevolent. Likewise, healthy anxiety in others can prod them to treat us well.

On an entirely different note, anxiety can spice up our experience when it’s part of a larger picture of novelty, eroticism, romance, adventure, performance, or any new challenge. In the right dose, it can heighten the moment and give a certain “edge” to our performance. We gain a sense of mastery when we undertake something that entails risk and “survive.”

Even when anxiety takes entirely miserable forms (which it often does), it can teach us something. When we share our anxieties and fears with friends and family members, we can learn how to receive comfort and accept help from others. By opening ourselves up and accepting support, we also help them to feel less alone or ashamed about their vulnerabilities and imperfections. In the process, we enhance our own capacity for empathy and compassion, because, well, we’ve been there. We know that anxiety can make anybody lose sleep, memory, and concentration, feel dizzy or nauseous, shake uncontrollably, or totally freak out. It’s simply part of the human experience.

Sharing the more vulnerable parts of ourselves is one way we feel intimate with others. I know several people who have never visibly shown anxiety or spoken openly about their fears in the long years I’ve known them. I have come to love and admire several of these people, but I don’t feel especially close to them. While I might seek out such a person to be my pilot or dentist, my best friends are people who share their anxious moments and worst fears as generously as they share their talents and competence. It’s the open sharing by both parties that, for me, keeps the relationship balanced and intimate.