Most of us can recall moments of anxiety where our chests tightened, our pulses raced, and fear washed over us. For those suffering from anxiety disorders — the most common mental illness in the U.S. — these symptoms pale in comparison to the hyperventilation, dizziness, and extreme panic associated with chronic anxiety.
The U.S. has been unceremoniously dubbed the most anxious nation on Earth, and anxiety sufferers on all ends of the spectrum work diligently to ward off these negative experiences. But is anxiety always bad?
The quick answer: It depends.
Situational feelings of anxiety — not chronic anxiety — can actually be good for you. Here’s why…
Anxiety Protects Us From Harm
Anxiety is associated with one of our most primal instincts to avoid threats. There’s a reason why animals like snakes or bears instill fear, or why unfamiliar foods cause us to pause. Our bodies are biologically wired to protect our well-being so we can live longer and ultimately carry on future generations. Charles Darwin said that species that “fear rightly” increase their chances of survival.
Our innate fight or flight response is a key component in this process. When faced with a risky scenario, our bodies experience a surge of adrenaline to prepare us to either engage or seek safety. Your muscles may tense, your heartbeat quickens, and sweat pours over you. Together, these bodily reactions can help us become more agile, take in more information, and infuse us with more energy. Ever wonder how bystanders at an accident scene have the strength to lift a full-sized car off a victim? They have their natural fight or flight response to thank.
You may not regularly face such life-or-death experiences, but feelings of anxiety have the power to redirect our behavior to avoid harm, whether big or small.
It Helps Us Perform
When faced with a challenging client meeting, a public speaking engagement, or a big event, anxiety serves as a natural checkpoint for honing in our focus and achieving our goals. This hyper-arousal and adrenaline rush often slows the digestive tract to make all biological processes work together to ensure success. Anxiety often comes to the rescue when it’s crunch time.
Research shows that students and athletes with some anxiety displayed improved performance on tests or while participating in competitive sports. Another study found that people who have good memories and who get anxious do better in exams.
But according to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, there are limits to the positive impact of anxiety on performance. Performance increases with arousal, but only to a certain extent, when anxiety begins to hinder. Think of a wedding where the best man could only muster a few words, or when completing a standardized test was impossible as your heart beat out of your chest. The key is keeping anxiety levels in check to capitalize on its positive impact.
It Changes Our Perspective
A less scientific benefit of situational anxiety comes from the ability to pinpoint what’s important in our lives. If specific situations or relationships repeatedly cause feelings of anxiety, there’s a good chance that your anxiety comes from a deep desire to succeed or improve those connections.
Your perspective on anxiety has the power to shape how it impacts you. A recent study in the Journal of Individual Differences found that participants who viewed stressful events as challenges, rather than threats, gained a boost in energy from their anxiety. This ultimately motivated them and improved their performance. Seeing feelings of anxiety through the lens of opportunity versus fear can usher in the best results.
Plus, experiencing feelings of anxiety automatically makes you more empathetic to others who deal with similar feelings. Instead of judging peers who falter when confronted with anxiety symptoms, you’ll be more understanding and encouraging based on your personal experience. In today’s competitive culture, anything that lends to greater support of others is a win.
Finding the Bright Side
The next time you’re immersed in a stressful situation and feel anxiety wash over you, think of these little-known positive attributes of your body’s natural response. You may feel more thankful and less frustrated after all.
If your anxiety seems out of control, or crosses the line from beneficial to detrimental, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help from a licensed therapist. Therapy can help teach you effective coping strategies for anxiety, and bring you back to a more balanced state.