Why Anxiety Can Be Good

UPDATED: November 5, 2015
PUBLISHED: May 5, 2015

A racing heart, sweaty palms and shortness of breath: The familiar symptoms of anxiety can strike anytime. Giving a speech to a packed auditorium can leave you queasy and lightheaded, but so can less significant challenges, like driving from the airport to your hotel in an unfamiliar city.

You may fret about the future, imagining 50 shades of catastrophe before a presentation to potential investors. Or perhaps you ruminate about the past, turning over and over for deeper meaning to a friend’s “Losing your grip?” quip after you drop a napkin at a cocktail party.

Anxiety can undermine your ability to perform. Two years ago when Sara Ledterman left her position as the director of a San Diego interior design firm to start the online magazine Adornomag.com, she experienced anxiety so unremitting that it left her debilitated. “I had daily panic attacks. I worried about everything until it was paralyzing to make even the smallest decisions. People would need answers right away, but I couldn’t think straight. When it got really bad, my hands would go numb.”

Luke Cooper, a lifetime overachiever, had won a $50,000 investment after his first-place finish at a boot camp for early-stage minority entrepreneurs. But when he tried to move forward with Peach, his web app for helping people through the maze of extended warranties, the Baltimore tech star found himself uncharacteristically stuck. “We obsessed about things that didn’t matter,” he says. “We spent a good week and a half on how our logo should be positioned on our letterhead.”

The insecurity wrought by anxiety can also imperil relationships. Heather Stone, the registration administrator for the Alberta College of Pharmacists and a freelance wedding photographer in Edmonton, Alberta, says she is plagued by irrational fears that leave her feeling crushed. If Stone hears about a friend—or even a celebrity—whose husband is having an affair, she’ll be awake all night consumed by suspicions that her boyfriend is cheating on her. “If you knew my boyfriend, you’d know how unreasonable this is. He’s never been unfaithful, and he loves me unconditionally.”

Anxiety can lead to needless suffering and can ravage health. In one widely reported 2004 study, Elissa Epel, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, showed that chronic anxiety contributes to shorter telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, which makes cellular damage more likely. With that comes an increased risk of cancers, heart disease, dementia and accelerated aging.

But for the garden-variety worrywart, the picture is far less gloomy. Experts are taking a new look at anxiety and finding that it might have been given a bad rap. In moderate doses, they say, anxiety can actually help us flourish.

For example, “The anxiety that entrepreneurs experience is doing exactly what it’s meant to do,” says Alicia Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points, “alerting them that they’re in a situation that is uncertain.” Simon Rego, Psy.D., director of psychology training at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, says that a manageable level of anxiety “motivates us toward getting things done, focuses our attention on what’s important, and gets us out of dangerous situations.”

Across all spheres of life, a measured dose of anxiety can be protective, functioning as a human alarm system, says psychologist Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “Missing from prior discussions of anxiety are the ways it helps drive your success,” he points out in his book The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment.

Among the surprising truths about anxiety: In some situations, you want to be highly anxious. You need an anxious person on your team, and without anxiety, small problems can easily blow up into big ones. Consider one recent study in which participants were led to believe they had accidentally activated a computer virus that would wipe out the files on the experimenter’s computer. Then on their way to alerting the computer’s owner, they faced four obstacles, including a door telling visitors to wait and someone asking them to complete a short survey. Highly anxious participants tore past these roadblocks while their laidback peers lagged behind. “In situations when danger is a possibility… anxiety prevails over positivity,” Kashdan says.

Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is another expert working to rehabilitate anxiety’s reputation. After a decade spent warning people that stress could make you sick, increasing your risk of everything from the common cold to heart disease, McGonigal came across research that told another story: It’s not stress that’s killing us, as she explains in her new book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It; it’s our belief that any and all stress is bad.

In a 2013 Harvard study, for example, when participants were told to rethink their pounding hearts and fast breathing—classic signs of anxiety—as preparing them for performance before they had to speak in public, they were more confident and relaxed. Their blood vessels constricted less, and their hearts pumped more efficiently. “This shows that you can change your moment-to-moment cardiovascular physiology depending on how you think about stress,” McGonigal has said. Today she asks people, “Rather than trying to slow your pounding heart, why couldn’t you view it as your body giving you energy?”

The key to reaping the benefits of anxiety, Boyes says, is to learn “how to accept, like and work with your nature rather than fighting against it.” Boyes, who is anxiety-prone herself, says that with “micro-interventions” you can learn to shift your thoughts and behavior in ways that will allow you to move from being paralyzed by anxiety to being energized by it.

The Diverse Faces of Anxiety

If you entered a ballroom filled with strangers and were asked to point out an anxious person, you’d probably direct your index finger toward the guy standing by himself stirring his cocktail. That guess is a bit more educated than a coin toss, but not by much. Statistically, people with anxiety disorders are more likely to be introverts, Boyes says.

But, she adds, some of her clients who have struggled the most with anxiety have been extroverts. That’s because introverted worrywarts can often work around their social anxiety enough to form the few close relationships they want. The anxious “people person,” on the other hand, yearns for a wide circle of friends and colleagues yet may find that parties and networking events lead to a drumbeat of self-reproach: What a stupid thing to say. You’re such a bore. Nobody here wants to talk to you.

Here’s another cliché-buster: Anxious people can also be adventure seekers with a robust appetite for risk, or what’s known in psychological parlance as “high in sensation-seeking.”

Boyes says the takeaway “is that there are people who are ambitious, competitive, big-thinking and novelty-seeking” but who also have a makeup that leads them to become easily overstimulated and anxious. They often feel like they’ve got one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake, she says.

Knowing your personality type and how you’re wired can go a long way in helping you manage your anxiety. Boyes says that setting up your life to suit your temperament (whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, whether you’re someone who enjoys new experiences or prefers the tried-and-true) will help you maintain a sense of equilibrium. She suggests finding the right level of “busy-ness”—enough activities and social engagements to keep you feeling stimulated but not scattered—and maintaining a mix of change and routine in your life, perhaps alternating checking out new restaurants with returning to old favorites.

Boyes also advocates allowing yourself the right amount of “mental space” to work up to doing something. You want enough time that you can satisfy your need to mull over the prospect of getting started, but not so much time that it starts to feel like avoidance.

People with generalized anxiety disorder feel anxious almost constantly, without any clear cause. But this kind of day-in, day-out worry that wrecks your sleep, ruins your appetite and renders even routine activities challenging is uncommon. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 3 percent of Americans suffer from generalized anxiety disorder in any given year. (Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an effective way to treat generalized anxiety disorder, with treatment generally lasting three to five months.)

For the rest of us, anxiety is more fluid, asserting itself in only some domains. Perhaps you deal with work stress with aplomb but are a wreck when it comes to even a minor health issue. And anxiety can come and go, triggered by events like, say, starting a difficult work project or launching into a new romantic relationship. Self-knowledge about the types of stress that you find most challenging can help you avoid the kind of toxic anxiety that can take a toll on your health.

For instance, when Boyes wanted to get involved in real estate investing, she chose to flip a house in Indiana rather than one near her Las Vegas home. “It was much less stressful for me to have a project manager making the decisions than for me to be driving by the house site every day and fretting over what color to paint the trim. Plus I’m an introvert, so I preferred to have a manager dealing with all the relationships with the contractor and crew, and I just had to manage the one relationship.”

Recognizing your temperament can save you from a business or career that, successful or not, is going to make you miserable. “If, like me, you don’t like dealing with a lot of people, you might prefer a small company to a large one,” Boyes says. “I also like to be able to switch off from things, so I would hate to have a business where I’d need to be accessible  24/7.”

Embrace Imperfection

Ideally, as you work toward goals, you would enjoy your successes and take any setbacks in stride, Boyes says. But perfectionism, which is probably the most common anxiety trap among achievers, can short-circuit this process. People who experience anxiety-related perfectionism often expect a flawless performance from themselves because they fear anything less will be disastrous, and they beat themselves up for their failures far more than they luxuriate in their successes. The cure: realizing that you can recover from mistakes.

A turning point for Ledterman occurred after she made the mistake she most feared: a poor hire. “It was clear almost from the start that the employee wasn’t going to work out. It was bringing down the whole team. I was really worried about letting her go, but I did it, and things got better immediately.” Ledterman experienced what she calls a paradigm shift in her thinking. “I realized I’m not always going to have all the answers, but I’m going to make the best decisions I can. That means accepting that I might make a mistake and knowing that if I do, I’ll be able to turn things  around.”

A favorite mantra helps keep her centered. “Every time I find myself starting to worry about failing,” Ledterman says, “I take a deep breath and repeat, Stop worrying; start amazing yourself. It gives me the energy to fight on.” When her anxiety is heightened and she finds herself on the verge of a panic attack, she makes herself a cup of tea. “While I wait for the water to boil, I do a breathing exercise: I close my eyes and count slowly. Then I pour the water in the mug and put my face over the steam for a  minute.”

Ledterman’s intervention is effective because it addresses both her physiological and mental states. Through her mantra and deep breathing, she decreases her state of anxiety-induced over-arousal. And by changing the way she’s thinking about decision-making, she engages in neurological rewiring. As Boyes points out, when you can recognize the value of acting with uncertainty, you’ll help your brain start to interpret uncertainty as a positive, or at least not terrible, state.

Cooper says he and his co-founder Christopher Garvis had a snap-out-of-it moment when they “realized that no one likes to be around worriers. Investors, partners and advisers admire people who view problems as opportunities. So we started taking action instead of spending all our time fretting about the future.” To ward off those dire what-ifs, Cooper and Garvis sometimes do yoga headstands in their office, prompting them to literally see things from a new  perspective.

Here are some other tips for managing anxiety:

• Avoid decision fatigue by reducing the decisions you need to make. Automate what you can: what you eat for breakfast or lunch, when you work out, even the clothes you wear when making presentations. (Steve Jobs’ signature black turtleneck and jeans saved his brainpower for bigger things.)

Set limits on how long you’ll research decisions and establish a firm deadline—marked on your calendar—for action. For example, allot one hour to search online for the best desk chair and commit to making a purchase at 3 p.m. on Friday.

• Enlist your smartphone as your anxiety coach. There are scores of apps that offer self-monitoring and relaxation techniques, two elements of anxiety treatment. The Self-Help for Anxiety Management app (developed by the University of the West of England) lets you monitor your anxious thoughts and behavior with features like “Things that make me anxious” and “How’s my anxiety right now?” while soothing images and guided breathing exercises coax you out of your agitated state. With the journal app Worry Watch, you log and track your everyday worries, which allows you to compare your “what could happen” catastrophic thinking with the eventual outcome.

• Adopt the philosophy of maybe. When you find yourself projecting future calamities, let yourself think of other ways a situation might work out, suggests Allison Carmen, a former lawyer turned life coach and author of The Gift of Maybe: Finding Hope and Possibility in Uncertain TimesPossible scenarios to consider:

Maybe I’ll find a house that’s an even better fit for my family than the one we lost to a higher bidder.
Maybe my suspicions about that big client jumping ship aren’t  true.
Maybe there will be new opportunities in the way my industry is changing.
Maybe I’ll actually enjoy taking a break from the usual beach vacation and spending a week in a new city instead.

“The mindset of maybe is a tool that enables you to challenge your fearful thoughts with alternatives,” Carmen says. “That helps dilute negative thinking and keeps you open to opportunities and new ways of thinking about accomplishing your goals.”

• Edit your bloopers reel. When Stone started her side business as a wedding photographer, she imagined disaster before each job, replaying an endless loop of whatever small hiccups she had encountered in the past.

Then she tried this tactic: When her anxiety grew, instead of picturing her missteps, she focused on her successes—happy brides and grooms, praise from past clients, referrals from other photographers. These affirmations soothed her pre-job jitters and revealed her anxious nature as a strength. “Because I’ve learned how to manage my anxiety, I  can help other people manage theirs,” Stone says. “If the bride is having a freak-out, I’m the one who calms her down.” And the tactic is proving useful in her personal life, too. Whenever she starts picturing her boyfriend betraying her, she now switches instead to images of all the recent ways he’s been loving and  attentive.

• Step off the anxiety escalator. Recognize when you’re berating yourself for feeling anxious, Boyes says. For example, you say to yourself, I should be able to chat with strangers at a party without getting so nervous, or I shouldn’t worry so much about what other people think of me. That kind of “should/shouldn’t” thinking can prolong and intensify your anxiety, Boyes says. Instead, treat yourself with compassion and empathy, the way you would a good friend. For starters, replace the “shoulds” in your self-talk with “prefer.” Instead of saying, I should be more outgoing in social situations, try I would prefer to be more outgoing. This may seem like a “ridiculously simple” change, Boyes says, but it works. “It can help you disrupt your overthinking just enough to give you a small window of clear mental space. This allows you to start doing something useful rather than keep ruminating.”

Do you struggle with keeping a positive mindset? Sprinkle some happy into your life with these 10 steps.