The Upside of Anxiety

Increasing levels of anxiety in our society, especially in young people, has garnered a lot of attention in recent years.  While the rise of chronic, severe anxiety is of course troubling, I’m here to shed some light on a different perspective…


That’s right, I said it and I meant it.  To get all scientific for a moment, anxiety is defined as, “...a psychological, physiological, and behavioral state induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential”.  When we feel anxious, our brain tells our body, “Get ready - it’s go time!” (i.e. get ready to fight or run).  Our respiratory and heart rates increase, sending more blood to our limbs in preparation to flee or fight.  What is often overlooked is the fact that anxiety exists on a spectrum of intensity and while chronically intense anxiety is problematic, occasional, mild to moderate anxiety is actually quite useful.  Let’s break that down...

Have you ever gone to the doctor and been asked to rate your pain on a scale of 1-10 where 10 is the most excruciating pain you’ve ever felt and 1 is basically nothing?  Anxiety can be rated this way as well with 8-10 being pure panic and 1-3 being mild nerves.  Different situations call for different ratings on the spectrum.  

When we’re at a 10 on the anxiety spectrum, all bets are off; our brain goes into autopilot and we’re just along for the ride.  Back in our most primitive stage as a human species, the threats we faced were things like saber-toothed tigers and our lives were seriously in danger.  If I’m about to be dinner, you better believe that I want my brain to kickstart the autodrive to outrun, fight, or hide from whatever is hunting me.  Similarly, in today’s day and age, if I’m about to be attacked I also want my brain to skip the analytics and jump right into action or in some cases inaction (AKA, freeze, don’t move, blend in, try not to be seen).  Anxiety in these dangerous situations is both good and necessary.  

In the middle of the anxiety spectrum might be the worry you feel about an upcoming final, the butterflies in your stomach before a first date, party, or big meeting, or the unease experienced while walking down a darkened street.  Anxiety in these situations is there to say, ‘Hey - pay attention because this is important to your well-being!’.  This kind of anxiety can be motivating and used to fuel us through a late study night, energize us in a new social setting, or pay closer attention in a potentially risky situation.  

Where anxiety becomes problematic is when situations that call for a 5, elicit a 10 or when we’re stuck between 5-10 all the time.  But when our baseline is 1-2 and a 5 situation elicits a 5, or a 10 elicits a 10, it’s a GOOD thing!  It’s our body working as it’s meant to, to navigate the environment and circumstances it’s in.  So let’s give healthy anxiety a little round of applause and share an enthusiastic, “Thank you!” for trying to keep us safe.