Anxiety Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

The benefits of anxiety include alerting us to danger and helping us manage uncertainty, according to psychologists. The key is to manage our unease before it overtakes us.

I am an anxious traveller. I arrive at airports and train stations extra early. I triple-check all of my documents, feel a tightness in my jaw and a slight clench in my stomach until I’ve arrived where I’m going. Non-anxious people tease me for being a “nervous nelly.”

I used to feel bad about it, seeing it as irrational, weak. Not anymore. I could write a book on this subject—actually, I did: A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine). I’ve learned to respect my tendency to be hypervigilant.

Recently, I was driving along a country road at the start of a long trip that would mainly be on a highway, the 401 in Ontario. I began feeling that something could go wrong. What if I run out of gas? I worried, even though I still had plenty. So when I spied a gas station just before the on-ramp I was going to take onto the highway, I gave in to my angst and decided to fill up. Just in case.

And that’s when I discovered that one of my front tires was badly deflated. If I’d overpowered my unease, talked down my anxiety, the tire would’ve blown at speed on the highway. My urge to plan ahead even though it wasn’t strictly necessary saved me from a potentially catastrophic scenario.

The Benefits of Anxiety, According to Psychologists

A growing number of psychologists and neuroscientists are getting the message out that anxiety and other negative feelings have a role to play in our lives. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who recently published Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad), thinks our culture goes overboard in demonizing difficult emotions.

She knows what it’s like to get swamped by anxiety. “I remember a period at work when there was a lot going on,” says the professor of psychology and neuroscience at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. Worries kept waking her up at 4 a.m. “It was like a yucky cloud of free-floating anxiety,” she says, and it kept her from falling back to much-needed sleep.

Instead of trying to suppress this disconcerting feeling, however, Dennis-Tiwary leaned into it. “If you sit with the anxiety, you have an opportunity to glean information,” she says. “For me, this one important ball I’d dropped at work finally rose to the surface of my mind. When I recognized this niggling thing, and gave it space, I learned from it. I wrote down two or three things I could do to address it.” The next morning, she felt calmer.

Psychologist Todd Kashdan, director of the Well-Being Lab at George Mason University in Virginia and co-author of The Upside of Your Dark Side, is a critic of what he calls “gung-ho happy-ology.” We don’t always have to be smiley and serene, or worry that there’s something wrong with us. Sometimes, he says, it’s right to worry. Fear heights? Good, because you won’t be the person who falls off a cliff while taking a selfie.

These experts wonder if the natural role that anxiety plays in our lives is being forgotten. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced in March 2022 that the prevalence of anxiety and depression had increased globally by 25 percent over the year before (which was the earlier part of the pandemic). It called the finding “a wake-up call to all countries to step up mental health services and support.” Do we know for certain this data represents a public-health crisis? Or could it mean that millions of folks are quite rightly feeling uncertain, stressed out and afraid?

The difference is important. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now recommends that family doctors do routine screenings for anxiety. It’s a positive development in that it recognizes the impact that anxiety disorders can have on those at risk. But what if initiatives like this funnel some of us into unnecessary treatments and medications? Could it make us lose sight of the benefits of our doubts and “what ifs”?

We can experience healthy, often completely valid, periods of distress without being categorized as mentally ill, according to behavioural psychologists. Anxiety is an adaptive strategy in human evolution. It helps us to prepare for the uncertain future, “to remain vigilant,” Dennis-Tiwary says. Anxiety prompts us to resolve projected unknowns by planning and imagining, by plotting out possible scenarios.

“From an evolutionary point of view, anxiety is the best emotion to help us manage uncertainty because it forces us to run those ‘what-if’ simulations,” she says. “That’s what it’s good for.”

Leveraging Anxiety in Our Lives

Likewise, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki of New York University (NYU) points out in her book Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion that “if we simply approach anxiety as something to avoid, get rid of or dampen, we not only don’t solve the problem it’s alerting us to, but actually miss an opportunity to leverage the generative power of anxiety.” By generative, she means that it can prompt us to move out of a situation that’s no longer working, to find the energy we need to get unstuck.

When we’re in an anxious state, the amount of dopamine in our brains increases, which prompts us to take action. In evolutionary terms, millions of years ago that might have meant looking for shelter to evade predatory animals. Today, it might mean leaving a job because of a predatory boss.

By not facing our anxiety, we lose its benefits, and can make things worse. Case in point for me: hiding unopened envelopes from the tax department in a drawer—even if they could be just the routine updates that self-employed people like me receive—until I’ve turned it into a full-blown phobia.

Says Alice Boyes, who has a PhD in clinical psychology and wrote The Anxiety Toolkit, coping with unpleasant feelings by avoiding them just reinforces your insecurity, because you’re not getting better at solving the problem: “Over time, you will feel less and less competent.”

The key is to manage unease before it overtakes us, like tending a garden so the weeds don’t spread. But how? According to NYU’s Suzuki, solutions include meditation, exercise, compassionate connection such as volunteering, access to nature and mentally reframing what we’re experiencing. For example, in her book Suzuki writes about a startup entrepreneur who was beginning to feel daunted by everything that could go wrong in his high-stakes venture. This generated all kinds of “what if?” anxiety that kept him sleepless.

He was, in psychological parlance, catastrophizing. After talking to a mentor, he found a new tool: a “reframe.” He turned “what ifs?” into a goal-directed to-do list: “If this were to happen, then what could I do? Well, I could do X.”

Reframing Fears

Dennis-Tiwary agrees that reframing is crucial. She points to a 2013 Harvard study in which socially anxious people were asked to speak in public. The researchers told some of them that having sweaty palms and a dry mouth or shaky knees was a good sign, a “positive coping tool” that optimizes the body for performance. The nervous speakers who heard this message had lower blood pressure and a slower heart rate. In other words, they shifted to that sweet spot where they were ready for the challenge, but not distracted and alarmed by their own nervousness.

That’s a pretty remarkable discovery. What it says is that we can reframe our fears so that they help us.

Several years ago, I was the last in a long queue of speakers at a TEDx event. The theatre was over-air-conditioned. I sat there shivering and growing tense, worrying that I would forget my speech about a book I’d recently written about death and dying. The longer this mind-body feedback loop of physical tension and mental anxiety went on, the worse it got, until my legs felt so rubbery that I feared I would fall off the stage. It’s a miracle I made it through my talk.

Knowing what I do now, I would have paced and stretched in the hallway to keep my body warmed up and my breathing calm while I waited, not unlike an athlete before an event. I still would have been nervous, but I would have been taking steps to manage it.

“One of the key problems is that our perceptions about anxiety stop us from believing we can manage it,” says Dennis-Tiwary. She argues that anxiety isn’t the problem. “It is the messenger that tells us we’re facing uncertainty and need to rise to the challenge. Or it’s pointing us to ways that our life needs to change, or that we need support.”

We can manage anxiety by “worrying well,” in Suzuki’s words. This includes meditation. It has been shown to calm the amygdala, the gland in our brain responsible for sending out alarm signals related to fear and anxiety.

Exercise helps, too. Suzuki experimented with some of her students and found that even just a 10-minute workout helped them feel less anxious before an exam. So, hit the gym, enjoy the dance floor or go for a hike. Just spending time in natural light and in green spaces, what the Japanese call “forest bathing,” can restore our sense of psychological balance. After all, we evolved in companionship with nature.

Because humour increases oxytocin, a hormone that enhances social bonding and relatedness, I sometimes listen to stand-up comedy to calm down. Social connection, touch and a grounding perspective on others’ suffering can also soothe us, which is why volunteer and community involvement helps. (Indeed, isolation during the pandemic may well have been a contributing factor to that uptick in anxiety noted by the WHO.)

These are all well-founded techniques that can keep us from spiralling. The trick, as Dennis-Tiwary says, is to listen to anxiety, then leverage it to make changes or extra plans—just like I did that day I set off on my road trip.

“Then,” she advises, “let it go. It’s a wave that you need to learn to ride.”

Now that you’ve learned the potential benefits of anxiety, find out how to help someone who’s struggling with depression

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada