Is Anxiety Always Bad?

anxietyWe read countless articles that portray anxiety in negative light. We hope to learn how to cope with the stressors, fears and insecurities life throws at us. (I, for one, am guilty as charged since several of my posts discuss how to manage stress, one way or another.)

And yet, are there benefits to anxiety? Is there such a notion as good stress?

Psych Central’s associate editor, Margarita Tartakovksy, M.S., discusses the evolutionary psychology underlying anxiety in her 2013 post. She references author and psychiatrist Jeffrey P. Kahn, M.D., who wrote on the premise in his book, Angst: Origins of Anxiety and Depression.

“Today’s panic disorder might’ve prevented our ancestors from venturing to potentially dangerous places, far away from their families and tribes,” Tartakovsky wrote. “Today’s social anxiety might’ve maintained social hierarchies and peace in primitive times. Today’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) might’ve helped our ancestors keep tidy and safe nests.”

Our ancestors’ primal instincts ensured their survival. In civilized society, these anxiety-ridden cues manifest as pain and are deemed problematic.

Stress management expert Elizabeth Scott, M.S., talks about the concept of good stress in her article. Good stress (or what psychologists call “eustress”) is adrenaline-based. It’s stress spawned by excitement.

“We see this type of stress when we ride a roller coaster, gun for a promotion or go on a first date,” Scott stated.

Good stress precedes actions that generate healthy stimulation. Maybe new relationships are being forged; maybe goals are being set in place; maybe risks are being taken; maybe adventures are pursued.

Scott also notes the distinction between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress triggers the body’s stress response, but it’s typically dealt with quickly, allowing the body to return to homeostasis. Chronic stress isn’t resolved as readily.

Can chronic stress become acute stress? Possibly.

By embodying a more pragmatic approach (which is easier said than done, of course), we can perceive the stressor as a challenge to happily overcome.

“If you don’t perceive something as a threat, there is generally no threat-based response,” Scott said. “If you perceive something as a challenge, the fear you would normally experience may turn into excitement and anticipation, or at least steeled-resolve. You can often make the shift in perception by focusing on resources, seeing the hidden potential benefits of a situation, and reminding yourself of your strengths.”

When I had surgery last year, I tried to visualize the circumstance as an obstacle to defeat, a trial to conquer. And that mindset worked, for a little while at least.

Sometimes, we succumb to stress and anxiety. I personally can attempt to embrace the “practical” mentality to absolve chronic stress, but it may only take me so far. However we choose to navigate stress, to the best of our ability, it’s certainly worthwhile to remember that anxiety has its useful origins and not all stress is necessarily bad.

Anxious woman photo available from Shutterstock