What's the Upside to Your Anxiety?

Anxious man outside
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Most people view anxiety and fear as very unpleasant emotions, especially people with an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is because anxiety and fear are often associated with uncomfortable bodily sensations, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, racing thoughts, shortness of breath, and tunnel vision. In fact, anxiety and fear are often viewed as "negative emotions."

However, even though anxiety and fear may feel unpleasant or uncomfortable, they are in no way negative. They actually serve a very important purpose, and it would be very hard to get by in life without these emotions.

What Are Anxiety and Fear?

Anxiety and fear are natural human emotions. They are our body's alarm system. They occur in response to situations where we may be in danger or at-risk for some kind of harm. Fear is an emotion that is experienced when we are actually in a dangerous situation, whereas anxiety is an emotion that occurs when we expect or anticipate that something unpleasant may happen.

Take the analogy of riding a rolling coaster. Anxiety is what we would experience as we climb that first big hill, anticipating that something scary is going to happen soon (going down the other side of the hill). Fear is what we experience as we are actually going down that big hill.

What Do Anxiety and Fear Do?

Fear and anxiety tell us that there is some kind of danger present, and all the bodily sensations that go along with fear and anxiety are essentially designed to help us respond to that danger.

They are preparing us to flee, freeze, or to fight. Anxiety and fear are part of our body's built-in "fight-or-flight" response.

This alarm system has been around for a long time. We likely would not have made it as a human race without it. Because it has worked so well for such a long time, it is very developed.

It works fast with little effort. It is, in many ways, an automatic response.

We don't have to think about this response. We don't have to deliberately set it off. If we detect or perceive a threat, this response can be immediately activated whether we want it to or not.

When Anxiety and Fear Disrupt Your Life

Just because anxiety and fear serve an important function for us, it does not mean that they don't have their downsides. They do. As humans, we have the ability to think and use our imagination to come up with possible scenarios that we may encounter in the future.

For example, if you are going out on a first date or a job interview, you have the ability to think about how those experiences may turn out. If you can imagine them going badly, this is likely going to result in anxiety, even though a negative outcome hasn't really occurred — you only imagined that one would occur. Thus, our body's natural alarm system can be activated even if a real threat is not present.

Fearing a negative outcome may then lead to some kind of avoidance behavior.

For example, if we expect a date to go badly, we may avoid going out on that date. Or, if we expect a job interview to turn out negatively, we may seek out a job that is less challenging or easier to get. These choices may interfere with our ability to build a meaningful and positive life for ourselves.

In addition, anxiety and fear can take us out of the present moment. If we are constantly worrying about what negative things could happen to our children, it may prevent us from really engaging with them. We may be distracted and less likely to enjoy spending time with them.

If you are ruminating about something bad that happened to you during the day while you are with friends and family, you may be less likely to really connect and enjoy your time with them.

Anxiety and Fear in PTSD

People with PTSD may have fear and anxiety that is much more frequent and intense than those without PTSD. In PTSD, the body's fight-or-flight response becomes more sensitive, so it is constantly being activated. In addition, people with PTSD may become hypervigilant to signals of danger or threat in their environment. As a result, they may constantly feel on edge, fearful, or tense.

When Are Both Useful?

Anxiety and fear also have upsides. Anxiety and fear can signal that something is very important to us. For example, if you are worrying about your children, it is likely because you really care about them. If you didn't have a strong relationship with them, you may experience less worry.

If you are anxious about a job interview, it may be because you really want that job — it matters to you. If you didn't care about the job or didn't really need it, you likely would not find the situation so threatening or anxiety-provoking.

Given this, sometimes it can be important to override our anxiety and fear system. Even if our body is telling us to avoid something, we can move forward anyway, especially if we are moving towards something that is meaningful and consistent with our goals.

We may not have much control over our emotions or thoughts; however, we can always control our behaviors. In any moment, regardless of what we feel on the inside, we can make a choice to engage in behaviors that are consistent with our goals.

Coping With Anxiety and Fear

There are many skills that can make it easier to move forward in life despite anxiety and fear. Diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are two effective ways of coping with anxiety and fear. Mindfulness may also help you take a step back from unpleasant thoughts and emotions, allowing you to better connect with your present moment experience.

The next time you experience anxiety or fear, take a look at it. Ask yourself if the anxiety is stemming from a real or imagined threat. Try to determine whether the anxiety may be telling you that something is important or matters to you, and if so, make the choice to move forward, taking your anxiety along with you for a ride.

Sources:

Eifert, G.H., & Forsyth, J.P. (2005). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Roemer, L., & Orsillo, S.M. (2009). Mindfulness- and Acceptance-Based Behavioral Therapies in Practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

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