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5 science-backed reasons your anxiety is actually a positive force

Academic evidence suggests that anxiety drives progress by enhancing certain behaviors that set us up for success.

5 science-backed reasons your anxiety is actually a positive force
[Photos: Zulmaury Saavedra/Unsplash; Robert Zunikoff/Unsplash]

The self-help industry has devoted the past 50 years to demonizing anxiety, but anxiety is a universal human emotion that evolved to improve our ability to adapt to the real world and solve critical everyday problems. No human is entirely deprived of anxiety—even psychopaths are capable of experiencing it, albeit in smaller doses. Without anxiety, we would be incapable of evaluating risk, sensing danger, or protecting either our lives or our loved ones. It is tempting to imagine that a life free of anxiety would be a blessing, but the truth is that our capacity for survival would be seriously handicapped if we weren’t able to worry, fear, and stress.

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There’s no question that an excess of anxiety (whether caused by real or imaginary circumstances) is unpleasant. Most psychological disorders are defined by a surplus of counterproductive anxiety, which explains the extensive catalog of drugs—including cigarettes, coffee, and alcohol—consumed to reduce it. But the vast majority of the population will experience mostly manageable levels of anxiety, even during a crisis.

In fact, a great deal of psychological research suggests that the ability to turn our anxieties into a positive force is as human as anxiety itself. There’s even academic evidence to suggest that anxiety drives progress. Although progress increases anxiety, we are generally better off channeling our anxiety into productive activities than trying to suppress it.

Increases performance

Performance on virtually any job, task, and occupation increases when we experience a bit of anxiety. Worrying about the potential outcomes of your performance, how others will evaluate you, and whether you will deliver according to expectations are the main reasons why you are more likely to prepare for an interview, job assignment, or client presentation when you are worried than when you are not.

Makes self-assessment accurate

Negative tendencies, such as pessimism, neuroticism, or an anxious disposition, are also beneficial for making an accurate self-assessment of one’s health, particularly when they don’t lead to extreme behavioral tendencies, such as hypochondria. You are less likely to be caught off guard when you are overly worried about your health than when you aren’t worried at all.

Enables self-criticism

An anxious mindset also enables self-criticism, self-improvement, and humility, both at individual and cultural levels. The norm in this world, particularly in the West, is to be overconfident, and we tend to suffer from an excess of optimism rather than pessimism. One of the consequences is the surplus of people who are always wrong but never in doubt—that is, a general tendency to miss important threat and risk signals, to our own detriment.

Makes relationships more resilient

Personal and romantic relationships also benefit from a healthy degree of pessimism, anxiety, and self-criticism. For instance, couples who were optimistic about their romantic relationships experienced a bigger relationship decline later. In contrast, being aware of the potential fragility of your relationship enhances problem-solving and makes relationships more resilient in the long run.

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Motivates less selfish decisions

Even fear of death, perhaps the most pronounced and universal form of anxiety, has a bright side. Most notably, humans would not be as motivated to accomplish or create great things, and leave a legacy behind, if they weren’t as worried about death. In fact, scientific research suggests that when leaders worry about their death they make more strategic, future-focused, and unselfish decisions prioritizing others over themselves.

Even in difficult times and in the face of extreme adversity, you should cherish your anxiety and worry less about extinguishing it and more about turning it into a form of energy that fuels productive activity and behavioral change. If you experience a significant gap between where you are and where you want to be, and that gap makes you uncomfortable—to the point of keeping you up at night—then act on it. That is the actual point of having that unpleasant experience: not just to worry but also to turn that worry into a productive action plan. Avoiding the problems you really have, or sticking your head in the sand, will not improve your situation even if it does temporarily make you feel better.

As Seneca, the great Stoic philosopher, noted, life is an act of courage. Clearly, a great deal of courage is needed to face your anxieties and turn them into an adaptive force, but that is precisely the challenge that makes life worth living.

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