Anxiety Shorts: Anxiety Is Great!

Anxiety is often talked about as a bad thing. It’s not.

Anxiety is simply a state that occurs in response to an anticipated threat, like having to give a presentation in 2 days. A person has i) physical reactions, such as muscle tension or nausea, ii) mental reactions, such as worried thoughts, and iii) urges, to act on this information. That all sounds so crappy. BUT WAIT…. If you feel like that you’re way more likely to do the preparation needed to kick butt on your presentation! Anxiety is our brain’s weapon to cope ahead of time and mitigate this anticipated threat. Every night I check my phone alarm to make sure it’s set, due to my worry that I will be late for work. I double-check my writing to make sure I don’t make mistakes that I worry will be embarrassing. You won’t find basic speeeling mistakes on this page. Ooops.

If you didn’t have anxiety you would fail at basically everything in life (but I guess on the bright side, at least that wouldn’t worry you!). You wouldn’t ever meet deadlines, leave on time for things, or care how you present yourself. It’s our evolutionary safety net to think ahead about what could happen, and prepare accordingly. It keeps you alive.

Anxiety is an activating agent, an innate Red Bull if you will, that helps someone achieve his or her goals. When I’m at home in the evening waiting for my wife to come home, I get worried about what she will say if I don’t have dinner ready. As such I become motivated to cook her something. What a good husband!

As with anything, too much anxiety can be a bad thing of course. Problematic anxiety occurs in particular when it interferes with functioning or causes a ton of distress. Like if I want to make friends but I feel too worried about what others think to allow myself to go out. Or if I care so much about my grades that I stay up every night perfecting my work to the point that I have no life, that’s also a problem.

It’s a bit of a judgment call on whether anxiety is problematic, everyone’s levels vary. If you are not sure you can talk with professionals or complete questionnaires to get a sense of where you are. For example, being afraid of spiders in my house isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it doesn’t really bother me or get in my way. If I won’t walk on grass for fear of stepping on a spider, that might well be a problem for someone like me who likes being outside.

In summary, all I’m saying is that anxiety is not always a bad guy. It has the best intentions for you, and like a child trying to help you do the chores it can sometimes create more problems than it solves. But for the most part it should be appreciated!

 

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3 comments

  1. Is there any evidence of a hump of sorts that one can get over, like when mastery in a particular area is achieved, so anxiety moves on to the next thing?

    Example: many people are anxious when learning to drive, trying to remember everything and tracking everyone, but after a while it becomes an automatic process of sorts and anxiety disappears. Is this a thing?

    1. Great question! I think there are a couple of relevant things to answer your question. First, anxiety and skill are related. Everyone learning to drive feels anxious because the anticipated threat is actually quite high, but once you have practiced a lot the anxiety goes away. This is because you have learned that it’s actually safe and therefore it’s not threatening anymore. You can actually think of it as an extinction process – You’re extinguishing the anxiety response by driving enough times without the occurrence of a bad event. It should not move onto the next thing for most people. If you struggle with an anxiety disorder, however, we think about it as a misinterpretation of threat and anxiety and skill are therefore not as related. With driving for example, I could have driven for years yet be preoccupied with the fear that something bad will happen. In these cases we are looking for things that we can do to test the fear more. We look for safety behaviors or ways to maximize the “expectancy violation effect” so that new learning (that driving is safe, or tolerable) can occur. My first ever article on this site was actually a review of research on anxiety treatment if you’re interested in going more in depth! Hope this answers your question 🙂 https://knowinganxiety.com/2017/09/01/first-blog-post/

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