Truth or Myth: Feeling Anxiety Can Be a Good Thing

Truth! Anxiety is a normal and healthy function. In fact, you couldn’t subsist without it. Evolutionarily speaking, it was essential for our brains to be able to be observant in order to survive. Anxiety is a sign you are aware of your surroundings and that you are mindful of growing opportunities and that you are frightened of things that are in fact scary (like that saber tooth tiger or starting at a new school/job)! There are several functions that are necessary for us to survive that stem from feeling anxiety.

For one, feeling anxiety or stress increases cortisol and adrenaline levels in the body, greatly improving the fight or flight reaction. Your heart beats faster, your breaths per minute increase, you become more aware of your surroundings and your body is ready to fight or run to protect itself. Almost like your “spidy-sense” is triggered and your body is set to gear up to deal with and handle the situation at hand.

This adrenaline can improve both attention and your ability to focus. Think of a time when something big was on the line. Perhaps it was a speech you had to give, a three point shot at the buzzer to win the game—all create certain amounts of stress and anxiety.And while many of these situations are filled with pressure, the increased anxiety makes you focus that much more. In all of these instances, if your body wasn’t producing extra levels of adrenaline and cortisol, you wouldn’t be as ready to make that game winning shot.

The stress response that is triggered by anxiety is also designed to help us react when something potentially threatening happens, to help us deal with it and learn from it. Dr. Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor at UC Berkley, studies the biology of stress–examining at the molecular level how the brain responds to anxiety and traumatic events. Her research found that the part of your brain involved in the stress response (called the hippocampus) will stimulate stem cells which go on to form neurons or brain cells. Hence, anxiety can be a good thing as it can help you focus more and be able to learn more!

Having an understanding of how anxiety can be a useful tool in helping you be observant (ability to focus more), and recognize areas of growth (example: where you realize that you should focus more on your 3 point shot) and give you the adrenaline or energy necessary to deal with situations (example: saving the 2 year old from falling off the chair) can help you realize that anxiety can be an asset. Feeling anxiety really isn’t a bad thing. It is a normal and necessary feeling that you can make work for you rather than against you. How do you do this? When you recognize feeling anxious (everyone is unique in how they feel anxiety in their body but everyone feels it) mentally listen to the message that it is giving you and then in your mind, assign the anxiety a task. For example, you recognize you are breathing faster while preparing to be interviewed for a job. Take a deep breath and mentally give yourself a task to remember the interviewers name or to remember answers to questions you have already prepared and your brain will be stimulated to complete that task. Anxiety can really be an asset and not just for the caveman.

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