Why Psychologists Are Saying Anxiety Is Better for Us Than We Think

It’s time we took a more empowering view of this common issue.
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It’s time we took a more empowering view of this common issue.

“I’ve never seen this level of stress and anxiety over an impending election in my twenty-six years (of practicing),” Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist, recently told Newsweek. She’s not the only one noticing a heightened epidemic. Recent media has been highlighting “America the Anxious” and the “United States of Anxiety.”

But is it all bad?

For roughly 18 percent of the adult population—nearly one in five of us—who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, its effects are nothing to take lightly. The American Psychological Association notes “feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes.” Anxiety can mean dizziness, heart-racing, sweat-inducing panic, and just plain discomfort. One economic study reports that anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year—almost a third of the total mental health bill.

Comprehensive research has also found that disorders are also determined by our culture and social aspects—and in some cases, can be a good thing. Yes, for some, anxiety is truly bad. But the common anxiety we feel about politics, injustices at home and abroad, work, our relationships, and growing older is not only normal but also beneficial to us.

It's possible to transform our view of anxiety as something mentally and physically draining to something empowering. If we focus on our anxiety becoming more than an inhibition, we can use it to our benefit. Here are three ways to do just that:

01. A Means of Stress Relief

Wait, isn’t this an oxymoron? Don’t anxiety and stress go hand in hand? Yes and no. Stress and anxiety are commonly paired together as emotions, but they are separate entities. Stress is a response to a threat. Anxiety is a reaction to stress. How we handle stress determines to what degree anxiety will affect us.

Anxiety manifests itself in our fight-or-flight response. The hormone oxytocin kick-starts our adrenaline and protects us from the negative impact stress has on our bodies. “When oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support,” explains Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her TED Talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” This hormone is the alarm system your body enacts when dealing with stress. Your body naturally welcomes anxiety in order to fight off stress. “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up,” McGonigal says.

Studies have shown that anxiety serves as an “adaptive function” in cognition. It actually acts as a way for our bodies to naturally detect and cope with threats raised against us.

In other words, anxiety helps keep us safe.

When we see it in this perspective, anxiety becomes an ally rather than the enemy. When you allow yourself to perceive anxiety as a tool to control your stress level, you are better able to face life’s many challenges. What McGonigal says in her closing remarks perhaps says it all: “When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.”

02. An Impetus for Self-Improvement

The bad news is because anxiety is our natural response to stress, the pressure it produces is inescapable. The good news, however, is that we are capable of channeling this energy in productive ways. While fear and anxiety are commonly associated with each other, the two are also separate emotions. Fear can fuel our anxiety, but we shouldn’t let it paralyze us. Rather, anxiety stirs us to conquer our fears and free ourselves from what so often inhibits us from growing.

Take an audition or interview, for example. Before you head in, your mind is racing with thoughts of all the things that could go wrong. Everything else in the universe freezes. Although you tell yourself not to be nervous, you cannot help but be. And yet, this anxiety is also what drives you to go into the audition and kill it with your best shot.

In similar situations, you can either give in to the surmounting anxiety and give up, or you can use it to propel yourself forward. Drake Baer of The New Yorker dubs anxiety an “ambassador of responsibility.” He notes how psychologist Howard Liddell writes that anxiety “accompanies intellectual activity as its shadow.” David Barlow, founder and director emeritus of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, tells Baer, “People will accomplish more, perform better, will act in more appropriate and fruitful ways for having been anxious.”

Without some level of anxiety, you don’t have the incentive to survive or succeed. When viewed in this regard, anxiety becomes less of an obstacle and more of an opportunity.

03. A Universal Source of Self-awareness and Empathy

If you have experienced or are currently experiencing anxiety, you are not alone. Everyone has been affected by it in some way at some point in their life. So, feeling anxious is common ground upon which we can relate to and help other people. Having dealt with anxiety, you’re probably more likely to understand or console someone else suffering from it, and vice versa.

Being open with ourselves and others about our anxiety creates an environment that fosters empathy. In a 2007 report on various case studies, researchers found that an unwillingness to experience anxiety actually restricts us from acting in ways that are consistent with our values. By using mindfulness techniques, one patient suffering from anxiety, Sara, “slowly came to recognize her thoughts and emotions as normal, human transient responses. Her ability to bring understanding and compassion to her own experiences and to see them as separate from herself” allowed her to more fully respond to, accept, and engage with her family. Humans are social beings; more often than not, we want each other to succeed and overcome obstacles. When we decide this, anxiety transcends from a pariah to a commonality that knits us closer together.

When anxiety strikes, how we endure it determines the kind of effect it will have on our lives. Here are some natural remedies that can help ease symptoms of anxiety. Above all, remember that anxiety is meant to protect and motivate; you can choose to use it to be stronger.

Photo Credit: Erin Woody