The Ways Anxiety Can Work For You

Disclaimer: Not all anxiety is created equal.

anxiety

Anxiety, like the people it inhabits, comes in all shapes, sizes and forms. A 2015 Independent article cited one redditor who posted her patient’s description of anxiety as a never-ending limbo: “She explained the feeling as if she tripped and the moment where you don’t know if you are going to catch yourself or not is how she felt all day long.”

In 2017, Karen R.B., described it to Teen Vogue as a form of depression: “For me, it’s a vicious cycle where during the day, I’m completely exhausted and can’t seem to get anything done, and then I lie awake all night worrying about all the things I didn’t do…”

And in 2015, photographer Katie Crawford described it to Refinery29 as, essentially, feeling too much of everything: “There’s a misconception that anxious people are antisocial, short-fused or over-dramatic. But they’re most likely processing everything around them so intensely that they can’t handle a lot of questions, people or heavy information all at once.”

If there’s one concrete fact to take away from all these descriptions, it’s one that anyone who suffers from anxiety already knows: Anxiety sucks.

But oddly enough, there are some benefits: According to a recent study of 80 undergraduate students at the University of Waterloo, anxiety can actually help you remember things better. “To some degree, there is an optimal level of anxiety that is going to benefit your memory, but we know from other research that high levels of anxiety can cause people to reach a tipping point, which impacts their memories and performance,” co-author Myra Fernandes, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo told Science Daily in February.

The key, as Fernandes notes, is that the level of anxiety you’re experiencing has to be manageable. Otherwise it’s just:

Anxiety GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Memory isn’t the only thing that can be improved by a “manageable dose” of anxiety, either…

It Makes You More Trustworthy
According to an article on PsyBlog that cites a 2012 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the anxiety you feel when you’re embarrassed makes you seem more sociable, and therefore, more likely to gain a person’s trust. “Extending past research on embarrassment as a nonverbal apology and appeasement gesture, the authors demonstrate that observers recognize the expression of embarrassment as a signal of prosociality and commitment to social relationships,” writes study author Rob Willer.

It Can Make You More Motivated
It’s hard to believe that something that’s often described as crippling can help motivate you, but Katharine Starr, an expert on panic disorder, claims in Very Well Mind that, for athletes, it’s even better than a pre-game speech. “Research has shown that students and athletes who experienced some anxiety actually displayed improved performance on tests or while participating in competitive sports,” writes Starr.

It’s a Good Warning Signal
While it might seem that anxiety strikes for no reason, there’s normally some kind of underlying cause, so if you’re experiencing it, it could be worth examining your life or the situation you’re in more closely. And in more everyday cases, it’s just a practical reaction: “Anxiety can send you a message when your boss addresses your team, makes eye contact with everyone in the group but you, and your neck seizes up to alert you to the fact that those extra vacation days you took may be doing more damage than anticipated,” writes Steven Berglas in Forbes.

To that end, Starr agrees that anxiety is a helpful indicator that it’s time to make a change. “Recurrent worry and nervousness can be an indication that some areas of your life are off track and need adjusting,” writes Starr. “For example, you may find that you have a relationship that is no longer working, perhaps your job is causing a great deal of stress or maybe financial issues have you losing sleep and feeling anxious.”

It Can Help You Feel Relieved
This benefit may seem a bit iffy, but if you think about it, when you’re anxious all the time and you’re especially anxious leading up to some foreboding event, when said event turns out to be okay, you’ll experience the sweet joy of relief. At least that’s according to Alice Boyle, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University writing for Psychology Today: “Given this thinking pattern, many of the times you jump to a negative conclusion, you’ll get to experience relief and happiness when you figure out that whatever catastrophe you’ve leapt to hasn’t happened.”

It May Prevent You From Getting Into a Car Accident
A hypochondriac might argue that a benefit of their condition is that, due to their worry about getting sick, all those extra precautions they take mean they’re less likely to really end up catching a virus. In this case, the anxiety-riddled driver would argue that if you’re always worried about getting into a car accident, you’re paying closer attention to the road and therefore more likely to avoid the semi trying to make a left turn across oncoming traffic.

This is the basis of one study from the U.K. — cited in the same PsyBlog article listed above — that found that anxious new drivers are less likely to die in a car accident because they’re just that: Anxious new drivers. “High trait anxiety measured in adolescence is associated with reduced accidents and accidental death in early adulthood but higher rates of non-accidental mortality in later life,” wrote the study’s author.

That’s a net positive, right? RIGHT?