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Is There a Positive Side to Anxiety?

As prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs skyrocket, and more and more people are diagnosed with various anxiety disorders, a new wave of thought is emerging that suggests medicating and suppressing these feelings may do more harm than good.

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It is estimated that around 1 in 3 people will experience a significant period of anxiety in their lives. On top of this, we know that everyone deals with anxious thoughts and feelings at times. Anxiety is a part of life—it comes with the territory of living in a fast-paced, ever-changing world.

This is not to say that anxiety isn’t a serious problem. Those who are faced with chronic or severe forms of the condition should certainly seek treatment. However, as prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax skyrocket, and more and more people are diagnosed with various anxiety disorders, a new wave of thought is emerging that suggests medicating and suppressing these feelings may do more harm than good.

In this article, ManageMinds explores the positive side to anxiety and the implications this may have in terms of how we treat it.

The role of anxiety

When faced with a situation that threatens our wellbeing, our fight or flight response kicks in. A range of physiological symptoms are triggered, including increased heart rate and dilated pupils. This is a result of our adrenal gland flooding the body with catecholamines like adrenaline. Also known as the fear response, this process is designed to heighten our awareness and give us the energy and focus required to avoid or take on a threat.

Just like the fear response, anxiety is also a self-preservation tool of the body. While fear is a thing we feel as something threatening is happening, anxiety involves feeling fearful about something that may happen in the future. Though not always pleasant, this anxiety provides a reminder that we need to prepare for certain situations. In this sense, anxiety is not some malfunction of the brain, quite the opposite—it is a kind of built-in warning system.

We are not saying that anxiety is an inherently positive thing. After all, while it should not be considered a glitch, it can certainly reach a level or frequency that becomes detrimental to our health.

How anxiety can help us

Relationship with your body

Person wearing white shirt holding their hands over their chest
Image source: Giulia Bertelli (via Unsplash)

Dealing with anxiety can really open your eyes to the strong link between our physical and mental health. For some people, the physical signs of anxiety start long before they are even aware that they are anxious about something. When our brains are protecting us from stress-provoking thoughts, the body finds other ways to alert us to a problem. For example, symptoms like stomach ache, headaches and itchy skin have all been linked to anxiety.

People often come out of periods of anxiety with a better connection to their body. An understanding of how your physical health impacts your mental health (and vice versa) is a great motivator to look after yourself. Whether that’s by starting a new exercise regime, eating more vegetables or setting aside time to journal about your feelings, small lifestyle changes like these can make a huge difference to your overall wellbeing.

Performance

We’ve already discussed how the fight or flight response prepares us to deal with threats. In a similar way, some propose that anxiety can actually lead to improved performance in high pressure scenarios:

It actually energises us to achieve, to accomplish. We become smarter, more focused, more driven, more ambitious, more hopeful, if we have that right amount of anxiety that we can accept and engage with in our lives.

—Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, Professor of Psychology at Hunter College

Research suggests that those who are able to view anxiety-inducing events as a challenge can channel their anxiety into energy that improves their performance. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that such positive outcomes are the potential product of mild anxiety. Severe anxiety can have the completely opposite effect and leave a person feeling debilitated.

Personal growth

Life isn’t meant to be a straightforward journey from birth to death. We all go through various ups and downs, and how we respond to and reflect on these experiences shapes us as people. A big silver lining of anxiety is that the process of overcoming it will make you a stronger person. It will also equip you with various tools that you can apply to other challenging situations.

Learning to accept anxious thoughts without letting them dominate your life builds up your resilience. In addition, the knowledge that you have been able to survive bad patches in the past gives you the confidence to know that you are strong enough to do so again, should they return.

Finally, going through something like anxiety can increase your sense of empathy. You have a much clearer idea of how those around you may be feeling during hard times, because you've been through them yourself. This is a key life skill that will improve your relationships—both personal and professional.

The implications for anxiety treatment

Pile of white pills on a blue surface
Image source: Hal Gatewood (via Unsplash)

The downsides of medication

In recent years, particularly in countries like the USA, there has been increasing criticism of the reliance on medication to treat mental health issues. The Netflix documentary Take Your Pills: Xanax highlights the alarming rates at which medications like benzodiazepines (a type of sedative) are prescribed for long term use in those suffering from anxiety. While benzos like Xanax have proved to be very effective at treating the symptoms of anxiety in the short term, they can be extremely addictive and cause intense withdrawal symptoms in patients.

Furthermore, many doctors now argue that medicating anxiety does not solve the actual problem:

The only way out is through […] what’s going to get you on the other side of the anxiety is to actually go through it and experience it and understand it and make some sort of peace with it.

—Dr Julie Holland, Psychiatrist

Of course, for many people, this is much easier said than done. The good news is that medication is far from the only available treatment. Therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy can be extremely effective at helping people navigate their anxiety. Alongside this, there are certain lifestyle choices that should be prioritised due to their positive influence on mental health:

The merits of medication

While acknowledging its dangers are important, medication is a vital component of mental health treatment. For those who reach a crisis point, medication can often be the only solution that allows them to keep going. Even just knowing that medication is available when you need it is a comfort to many who experience anxiety on a regular basis.

It’s not that we should avoid medication, but rather we should consider how frequently it is used. In Take Your Pills, Dr Anna Lembke of Stanford Medicine explains:

The problem with you taking a Xanax every time you get anxious is that you’re not building up the mental calluses that you need to tolerate more anxiety.

In many ways, anxious thoughts are an understandable response to the complex, sometimes upsetting world we live in. It is therefore vital for our survival that we develop at least some ability to withstand periods of anxiety.

The positive side of anxiety

Nobody likes experiencing anxiety, but it is somewhat comforting to know that, in certain cases, it can help us to increase our resilience and even thrive under pressure. There is no one cure for anxiety (and certainly no magic pill) but extensive research shows that a multi-pronged approach to treating anxiety is the most effective solution we have. This includes therapy, lifestyle changes, medication and, yes, facing the anxiety head on when we have the strength to do so.

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