Surprise! Anxiety Can Be Good For You
Updated: Jan 10
Contrary to popular opinion, anxiety is not always a bad thing. In fact, your anxiety could become your pathway to flourishing.
That’s the message from Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the City University of New York in her new book, Future Tense. Research demonstrates that learning to notice and respond effectively to anxiety makes you more persevering, creative, and productive.
Anxiety has become endemic in our society, as surveys and my coaching experience has shown. If you’re ready to leverage your anxiety to move forward instead of staying stuck, here are five things Dennis-Tiwary wants you to know:
1. Fallacies about anxiety are counterproductive.
Unfortunately, prevailing myths about anxiety worsen our choice of coping methods. Anxiety is not always destructive, she asserts, nor is it a system malfunction that needs fixing.
When we view anxiety as necessarily bad, we get anxious about being anxious. We rush to avoid or suppress it, making it worse and blinding us to healthy coping strategies.
The key is to get curious about anxiety, including how to use it for its true, evolutionary purpose—to protect us and energize us in healthy ways.
2. Anxiety motivates hope and perseverance.
“The problem isn’t that we feel too anxious—the problem is that we haven’t mastered how to feel anxious. “ ~ Tracy Dennis-Tiwary
The discomfort provoked by anxiety is an evolutionary advantage, not a bug. As a form of mental time travel, it allows us to anticipate potential pitfalls as well as triumph. It’s essential to hope and well as perseverance, motivating us to optimize outcomes and connect with others.
How you choose to perceive anxiety shapes your outcomes. Research participants primed to reframe anxiety as an advantage performed better under pressure, felt more confident, and showed a steadier heart rate and lower blood pressure.
So the next time something sparks anxiety, you can choose to reframe it as a prompt instead of a trigger. Think of it as a call to anticipate and work toward the best possible result.
3. “Anxiety primes us for social connection and creativity.”
Most people assume anxiety contributes to stress. However, cutting-edge research indicates it can also buffer by priming us for social connection and connectivity.
An anxiety attack spikes the release of hormone oxytocin, also called the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, which induces us to seek social support. In turn, we reduce psychological and physiological distress.
“Humans evolved to rely on others for solace. We perform ‘emotional outsourcing’ during challenges so that our brains undergo less strain.”
~ Tracy Dennis-Tiwary
Seeking “reality checks” and comfort from others goes a long way to recalibrating your system, as you may have already discovered. Now you know why that works!
Interestingly, a touch of anxiety boosts your creative and problem-solving juices. Even when provoked by anxiety, activated states result in increases in both the quantity and quality of ideas compared to depressed or relaxed states.
4. Anxiety only works because it causes discomfort.
You only feel anxiety about things that matter. If you did not feel bad, you would not feel a push to do what’s necessary to protect yourself.
As you stretch yourself and succeed against obstacles, you can feel anxiety plummet—a kind of reward known as “negative reinforcement.” Learning to function optimally means paying attention to the rise and fall of anxiety as we work with and through it, Dennis-Tiwary explains.
To do this, instead of suppressing your anxiety by powering through, pause to tune into it. Consider it a signal rather than noise.
What is your anxiety trying to communicate? Go through a mental checklist of what is bothering until you identify the source of your anxiety. Then take a solution-oriented approach and watch your anxiety dissipate, she notes.
In short, start using anxiety as a prompt for positive coping behaviors.
Personally, I’ve found that at times the “message” is more noise than signal, i.e., a habitual worry without substance, note other experts. In those cases, I find it works best to let the thought go and pivot to something constructive.
As the Zen proverb says, “You don’t have to believe everything you think.”
5. Don’t confuse normal anxiety with anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion that ranges from low to high. It only becomes a disorder when it disrupts our ability to function at work or at home. In those cases, seek professional help.
“Treating all anxiety as a disease hinders us from finding ways to manage and use anxiety to our advantage,” Dennis-Tiwary observes.
Accept that anxiety will pop up on your life’s journey. It is part of being human. However, if you get curious about its message, you can start channeling anxiety to stay on track and create your best life.
“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D. (2022). Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad)