It might be hard to imagine there are any benefits of anxiety. After all, it can be a pretty negative experience and make us feel fear, doubt and a variety of other emotions that most of us would prefer to avoid.
Anxiety tends to come up at the worst times, too: when we’re alone, under pressure or feeling stress.
Biologically, though, anxiety is rooted in survival instincts that predate civilization: It’s part of the instincts that kept our early ancestors from getting eaten by a predator when things were quiet…too quiet.
Anxiety still has benefits to offer — and mental health benefits, too, when it’s experienced in moderation.
Keeping your anxiety in control is certainly a challenge, but doing so can help you perform better, be more alert and attentive, and succeed in life — all while still enjoying the little things.
Read on to learn more about possible benefits of anxiety, and how to best manage your moods so you can feel your best.
Anxiety is a complicated concept, and particularly when talking about its benefits, it’s important to understand that anxiety isn’t inherently negative.
Anxiety is simply a fear or unease about the unknown, and that fear may be real or imagined. Anxiety can offer some benefits, though, from improved performance and awareness, to things like bravery.
Related post: Is Anxiety a Mood Disorder?
Symptoms of anxiety are many when it’s excessive: They can affect everything from your stomach to your mood to your sex drive, and in some cases, they can affect your blood pressure, level of focus, and sleep.
Estimates show 40 million Americans deal with anxiety at least once in life, so it’s certainly nothing rare or unusual.
What’s more, anxiety shares symptoms with other psychiatric disorders. You may have a particular type of depressive disorder like seasonal affective disorder (affecting you seasonally and with which anxiety can be a symptom), generalized anxiety disorder (affecting you chronically), or severe anxiety and panic disorder (affecting you in sudden, severe episodes that are short but intense).
But you may also be suffering from mental disorders like depression.
Okay, that may sound bad, but as we mentioned, anxiety disorders are what happens when worry becomes excessive. And worry doesn’t always become excessive.
It turns out that there is plenty of scientific evidence to show that anxiety can indeed have many intended and unintended benefits in our lives, and in ways that may make a little mild anxiety worth the hassle.
Here are some benefits of anxiety:
Anxiety can sometimes help you work through thoughts about what could go wrong, and create contingency plans for when things don’t work out. Those plans, it turns out, might save you from a problem later, simply because you over-prepared for all outcomes.
Feelings of anxiety can help you spot red flags in a variety of situations, from a promise or reassurance that wasn’t convincing. You might notice red flags from a coworker who isn’t going to deliver on deadline for example, or a babysitter who seems like she might cancel.
Nagging anxiety could also help you spot a partner who isn’t in it for the long haul. Just don’t mistake paranoia for these instincts.
Do you ever worry about what other people think about you? If you let anxiety control you, it can lead to lost sleep and panic, decreased self confidence and other issues. But if you take those perceived judgements constructively, you’ve got an opportunity to better yourself, whether that means meeting new standards or holding yourself to higher morals.
Slightly increased anxiety levels can help you with a variety of other miscellaneous problems and help prepare you for the worst — or even prevent it.
Smokers who worry about cancer for example have a motivation to quit. Reckless drivers don’t worry about car accidents, but those who do worry tend to be more careful drivers.
It’s a fine line between helpful worry and unhelpful worry, though. And this is where things may become excessive — and cause need for some mental health support.
So when does everyday anxiety become too much? When it starts negatively affecting your life — and when those physical symptoms affect your health and happiness.
Your levels of anxiety are unhealthy when they prevent you from enjoying activities, relationships, intimacy or even just doing your job.
Social anxiety disorder may prevent you from going out, for example, and anxious people may see their quality of life and appetite for adventure reduced.
Anxiety can also be characterized as stress — and when the worry that you won’t be able to do everything becomes powerful enough to affect your life, it’s anxiety, too.
If you’re seeing a lot of familiar anxiety symptoms in the list of negatives above, your anxiety may be out of control, and it may be time to get help.
Treatment of anxiety disorders may work differently depending on your particular form of anxiety and how mild or severe anxiety is for you.
There are several exercises you can do to reduce your own anxiety, from breathing exercises and meditation to subtle changes in how you think about anxiety-inducing situations. But if you’ve not had much luck on your own, it may be time to consult a healthcare professional.
A mental health professional will generally recommend one of two major therapeutic approaches: therapy or medication (and frequently, in combination).
Mental health disorders like anxiety respond well to therapy, especially techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety, which patients are taught to employ as a technique for spotting unhealthy thought patterns, eventually learning to eliminate them from decision making and preventing anxiety from taking control.
If there’s a particular source for your anxiety, other therapies like exposure techniques might be effective.
Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are actually called antidepressants, but when it comes to anxiety these prescription medications are also really effective. They work by balancing levels of serotonin in the brain — because serotonin is a mood stabilizing hormone, and regulating it can help stabilize moods.
If you are seeing benefits from anxiety right now, it does not mean things can't go downhill, and fast.
Anxiety's positive effects can quickly become symptoms of an anxiety disorder or depression — especially if they start to rob you of your daily joy.
The anxiety response or stress response is a potentially wonderful tool, but you should remember to use it sparingly. And when it gets out of control, you should remember to ask for help.
Take the first step and talk to someone now, before anxiety goes from being a potential benefit to something that gets in the way of your life.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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