The Benefits of Anxiety

Anxiety’s Reputation

Let’s face it, anxiety has a bad rap.  It’s well deserved: according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada, anxiety is the most common mental health concern in this country.  It’s also the number one reason why people seek help at Willow Tree Counselling in Vancouver.

While anxiety is a general condition, specific anxiety disorders include: panic disorderpost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias and social anxiety. Anxiety also often has a hand in a number of related mental health concerns including depression, eating disorders and body dysmorphia as well as addictions / substance use disorders.

The Advantages of Anxiety

How could there be advantages?  A valid question, given that anxiety sufferers will tell you that anxiety can be crippling, paralyzing and at it’s worst, one of the most intensely uncomfortable mental states possible. When a person is in the throws of a panic attack, we want immediate relief. We want our anxiety symptoms to go away.  And yes, when you need help now, it’s prudent to have strategies to help you deal with your symptoms.

Hidden Benefits

Yes, there are benefits, but they’re “under the radar” – they don’t get much play.

  • Alerts Us to Danger – The “fight or flight” response is adaptive. Whether in an encounter with a sabre-toothed tiger in prehistoric times, or in a darkened alley today, this response protects us by pumping important biochemicals through our body needed to escape truly dangerous situations or fight if we need to.  We get into trouble psychologically when the anxiety response “misfires,” going off in situations that are not true threats to life or limb.
  • Improves Self-Knowledge and Awareness – Anxiety can alert us to things we need to change in our lives, or about ourselves.  If anxiety arises repeatedly around a certain topic, it’s often a sign that we need to take a closer look. It may continue to pester us until we take action.
  • Increases Motivation, Purpose and Quality of Life – Because it can feel so awful, anxiety can be the catalyst that causes us to do something meaningful about ourselves and aspects of our lives that we’re not happy with. It usually takes a significant amount of suffering before we’ll make major changes like starting a meditation practice or quitting drinking, and our life is often the better for it.
  • Improves Confidence – We realize our strength when we learn to move through it effectively. When we’re in the throws of anxiety, we can think that it will kill us. It’s common for people to arrive at a hospital emergency department thinking that they are having a heart attack when, after a medical workup, no physical cause can be found. What we don’t realize when we’re in the thick of it is that bouts of anxiety always end.  Like waves in the ocean, they roll in and roll out. The tricky part is we don’t always know how long it will take, which can prove to be particularly distressing.  Sometimes we also don’t realize that there are strategies that we can learn to manage our anxiety. If anxiety has been a longstanding problem, a professional, experienced counsellor can help to tailor an anxiety management program that’s right for you.  Anxiety is very treatable!  When you start to find and implement strategies that work for you, you’ll witness the effectiveness of your growing coping abilities first-hand which can be very gratifying indeed.

Friend, Not Foe

As paradoxical as it may sound, if we approach anxiety as if it were a friend or teacher, we learn to make peace with it and even learn from it.  When it’s our foe or adversary, we’re caught in a power struggle, adding tension on top of the anxiety that already exists. It can be helpful to acknowledge it when it arises –  simply noticing it – while refraining from judging it, or worse, ourselves. When we sit still within it, like the calm depths below the choppy ocean above, anxiety can help us make profound life change.