5 positives of anxiety (because yes, there are some)
While the stigma concerning anxiety is usually negative, there are some reasons to be thankful for this feeling. Anxiety protects us, it can make us more productive, and can give you a much-needed burst of energy.
As an anxiety sufferer myself, I often don’t see the experience as bringing me anything but stomach churning, heart racing, finger-fidgeting grief.
But recently, as I read a picture book that explained anxiety to my daughter called Hey Warrior, for the first time I saw it in a different light; a positive one.
With the central character being Warrior, a cute, fluffy, almond-shaped blue amygdala (the part of your brain that generates anxiety), the text explains how your amygdala creates the feeling of anxiety to protect you from danger, thus acting as your protector, your warrior.
On occasion, our Warriors can get it wrong and see danger where it isn’t there because (as the book says) it “is a doer, not a thinker.”
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But despite sometimes getting it wrong, our anxiety still does serve a protective purpose from real dangers.
This protective mechanism that is the fundamental part of anxiety can be traced back to the cave-people days, where being alert meant the difference between being devoured by a wild animal for lunch or not.
“This alertness is what people refer to as fight or flight,” says Clinical Psychologist Dr Meredith Fuller.
“Anxiety is actually a helpful warning to us, and it is a protective mechanism which can keep you vigilant and alert.”
Although our anxiety doesn’t always serve such vital life-saving purposes now, it does still protect us from danger, along with fight-or-flight hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which is why before we do something risky (like jumping from an aeroplane), or even something new we can often experience the sweaty palms and unsettled tummies.
This is just one positive side effect of anxiety, but there are others.
Anxiety can be performance-enhancing
Often before we perform a particular task, whether they are ones that are new to us like walking down the aisle, or perhaps ones we have done before but are still a bit daunting, (hello public speaking) or taking an exam or test, we can feel, even hints of the physical sensations of anxiety.
And these symptoms of anxiety, Fuller says, actually help us get the job done.
“Anxiety understands when something is important, and it mobilises you in these situations,” she says.
“It can help you make decisions and get things finished, it can also mobilise you in stressful situations, propelling you to react.”
This is why when a deadline looms, we often spring into action to get it done.
Anxiety can give you energy
Our buddy anxiety also gives us energy and is where that term ‘nervous energy’ stems from. Although if there is too much of it can be detrimental to your health and wellbeing, a balanced amount can be beneficial as it can help you in a variety of ways, says Fuller.
“Anxiety can make you more alert, more present, even faster so you can react and respond. It helps you achieve your goals and to get through things.”
Anxiety can act as a moral guide
Ever been asked to do something that goes against a value of yours? Have you felt anxious about the thought of doing this? You can thank your Warrior for that.
Another really great thing about anxiety is that it can show up, not only when we experience danger but for this other honourable reason as well.
When we feel those butterflies in our tummies or start to sweat it can stem from the reluctance to go against a certain belief or value we hold, our anxiety acting like a moral guide.
Anxiety can encourage us to be present
In a world where we are often planning for the future – whether it be errands we need to run, family schedules, or prepping for the festive season (which reminds me…) we can often forget to be in the present. But anxiety, like our almond-shaped superhero, can help us with this too.
The reality of anxiety is, it does not exist in the present, it only manifests in relation to something in our future (as immediate or far away as it might be). When this happens, it may be a timely reminder to try and focus on the here and now, rather than thinking ahead (all the time at least) which is such an important part of self-care and wellbeing.
But as is often the case, balance is important and if our anxiety balance is out of whack, it can turn from helpful, to crippling (or somewhere in between).
So how do you know when it goes from doing all of these positive things to being detrimental? Dr Fuller says a great way to work this out is by looking at how often you are feeling it and how it impacts you.
“If you are feeling symptoms of anxiety a lot of the time rather than in response to a specific situation, or if it is interfering with how you are living your life, this could be generalised anxiety and something that you may need to see your GP or a psychologist about for advice and treatment,” she says.
In the meantime, though, try to enjoy some of its benefits (I figure it owes us).
Shona Hendley is a freelance writer and ex-secondary school teacher. You can follow her on Instagram: @shonamarion.