When Anxiety Can Be Good

I woke up one morning and my stomach felt like it had been tied in knots. You know the feeling – the uncomfortable mass that sits there and just won’t go away. Anxiety manifests itself in other ways too… uneasiness, heart palpitations, sweaty outbreaks, sleeplessness, dizziness or nausea. Depending on the day that worrisome feeling can range from unpleasant to outright debilitating.

Surprising as it may seem, anxiety benefits us in ways you probably haven’t considered. It can:

  • increase awareness of risk, warning you to stop or moderate a behaviour that is dangerous or unhelpful;
  • keep the brain attentive, focussed and taking information from many directions at once, enabling rapid evaluation of a situation; and
  • serve as a psychological canary in the coalmine of your life, warning you to check in on the wisdom of the path you are taking and evaluate other options.

The cool thing is, while we would never consciously choose the pain and discomfort of anxiety, our subconscious is so clever and cares for us so much that it will use a condition as distressing as anxiety to obtain these benefits. However, if you don’t listen or respond to these promptings, the subconscious takes its efforts up a notch.

Sufferers of anxiety disorders (general, social or panic related) experience the symptoms of anxiety at high intensity over a protracted length of time. While the damage caused by this disorder is really high, the sufferer can still benefit through what psychologists call secondary gains. Examples of secondary gains include being excused from adult responsibilities, controlling others, avoiding uncomfortable situations, safety and comfort. Perhaps an example will help flesh this out.

Richard suffered massive and severe anxiety attacks that frequently resulted in hospitalisation. He had been told by doctors and psychologists that there was nothing they could do for him. He would simply have to find a way to live with it. He was seeing me because he had been on unemployment benefits for a long time and his case worker referred him. Richard believed there was no way he would ever be able to hold down a job because of his anxiety disorder. He was miserable and assured me that he was willing to do whatever it would take to get a different outcome.

After listening to his story for a while I became really curious. Together we explored the origins of his anxiety and the impact it was having on his life. He began to open his mind to the possibility that the anxiety was a super clever subconscious protection strategy that was keeping him safe from the risk of failure. He thanked his subconscious for caring about him so deeply and consciously chose some more resourceful strategies for dealing with his uncertainty and fear of failure.

The next week he came bouncing into my office with a huge grin on his face. He could only stay for a five minute chat as he was on his way to start a new job. Excitedly he reported the transformation that had taken place in his world and the fact that he had not had one anxiety attack since he had left the previous week. He had found some new strategies and was confident that anxiety would no longer be his constant companion.

As I pondered the knots in my stomach I recalled Richard’s story and felt grateful. I am not broken. I am incredibly and wonderfully made. It was time for me to get curious and check in with myself. I simply needed to discover the positive intention behind the pain. What was my subconscious trying to communicate with me? What was it trying to protect me from? What benefit was it trying to gain for me?

Those insights enabled me to find some different, more helpful and less painful strategies I could use to meet that underlying objective. Simply having this understanding unravelled the knots and as I began to implement my new strategies the anxiety disappeared altogether.

Do you struggle with anxiety? What benefits might it be giving you that you haven’t considered? How else could you meet that intention without having to live with the anxiety?