The passage from winter into spring can be a tough time: problems at work, family with cabin fever, hostile winter weather clasping the earth in a viselike grip, and the approach of April 15, the dreaded deadline for Americans’ filing of income taxes—all hard, bad stuff. It sounds like a recipe for anxiety—and who needs that?
But wait a minute. Maybe you do. Did you know that anxiety has an upside? You can be thankful that you have the capacity for it, because it actually helps under some circumstances. Just consider:
1. Anxiety tells you that something is not quite right in your environment. It alerts you that your body is out of sync with your surroundings. This is valuable information, because once you have it, ideally, you stop whatever you are doing and figure out how to address the problem.
Imagine that something is wrong with your car. You’re not sure what it is, but you certainly don’t need another big repair bill right now. The very thought is enough to produce a headache.
In this case, once you pause to reflect, you know that ignorance is always scarier than knowledge. Therefore the answer is to get the problem checked out as soon as possible. Once you have more information, you will know what to do to take care of the issue, and your anxiety will immediately become more manageable.
2. Anxiety, being uncomfortable, demands that you take action. In this sense it’s like an itch: right away you want to scratch it. This is a good feature, because otherwise you might be tempted to put off doing anything and just tolerate the problem.
Let’s say that you must take a certification examination for your job. You have the date and the time. You are worried about it. Perhaps your employer pays only if you pass. If you fail, the money comes out of your own pocket! So you want to do your best.
In this case, your anxiety will prod you to study and perhaps to take sample tests online. You can thank your discomfort for stepping in and forcing you to prepare yourself for the ordeal. You will almost certainly be better off than if you had just coasted through it.
3. Your anxiety improves your performance when you are about to be challenged. Maybe it’s a job interview, an exam, or a speech you must give. Whichever it is, research has shown that you will do a better job if you are slightly nervous and on edge.
In this case, your anxiety sharpens your ability just as a cup of coffee makes you more alert in the morning. If you weren’t anxious, you’d be less invested, and you wouldn’t work as hard.
Suppose you have the starring role in a neighborhood theater production. Your anxiety will rev you up. You will be more intensely focused on your role and more engaged with the other actors. The performance is likely to be more energized than it would be otherwise.
4. Anxiety can drive you to new heights of achievement. It can spark your creativity, your imagination. It forces you to keep grappling with a problem and produce a solution that succeeds without making trouble in other areas of your life.
In this case, your anxiety may be the flash of inspiration that wakes you up at 3:00 am with the answer to a prayer. “Why didn’t I think of that before?!” you may say to yourself before you roll over and go back to sleep. The creative spark may be an idea for a novel, a way of repairing something broken at home, or a new approach to pursue in negotiations. It can be anything at all.
5. Because anxiety is the catalyst for action, it compels you to experiment under duress. In the process you notice fresh aspects of your situation and experiment with coping strategies that wouldn’t occur to you in the normal course of events.
Many times people caught in emergency situations act instinctively, without premeditation. Sometimes they do remarkable things to save lives and avert disaster. Think of the pilot who landed the airplane in the Hudson River, allowing all of the passengers to wade to shore. What an astonishing, creative idea!
6. Anxiety keeps you learning. In one sense, the opposite of anxiety would be stasis, nothing happening. If you never got anxious, you would not feel impelled to do anything or make any changes at all. You would be just passively cruising along.
Theoretically, as living organisms we are always on the move, constantly searching out ways of making things better. This normal behavior ceases only with death. Viewed in this light, anxiety is proof that we are still kicking, still focused on survival, still alive and healthy and growing.
7. Anxiety warns you about trouble in your body. When you notice it, you are being directed to pay attention to the messages your physical plant is sending you. This is a good idea, something you must do to determine how best to take care of yourself in the moment.
Feelings are the body’s barometer, telling you when to throw open the windows and when to batten down the hatches. It is generally good practice to keep an eye on this weather forecaster. Make it standard practice to ask yourself as often as you can, “What am I feeling right now? What do I need to do to take care of myself right now?”
Your anxiety could be reminding you of a bank overdraft, a misunderstanding with a relative, or a symptom that the doctor ought to check. Whatever the issue, it is drawing your attention to unfinished business. Once you have attended to the problem, you will experience relief.
As you can see, your anxiety could be considered a safety mechanism or a form of quality control. After all, it helps you calibrate and recalibrate yourself throughout each day, so that you bring your best efforts to bear on each challenge.
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