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Anxiety Has Its Benefits — But Only in Healthy Doses

A healthy amount of anxiety can keep you safe from harm and motivate you to take action

Person at podium in front of crowd, nervous, sweating

Having emotions is one of those great benefits — and potential drawbacks — of being human. And while it’s tempting to label our feelings as good or bad, helpful or harmful, the truth is that emotional reactions of all kinds are important to our well-being.

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Even so-called “bad” feelings — like sadness, irritability, jealousy and even anxiety — have a role to play in keeping us safe and healthy.

“All emotions most likely evolved to help us survive,” says psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD. “We usually experience feelings like happiness, excitement and surprise as positive. And tend to consider emotions like anger, fear and anxiety as negative. But they all serve a function, and they’re all a normal part of the human experience.”

But anxiety in big doses or at inappropriate times isn’t a benefit. Anxiety that’s appropriate for the situation and leaves when it’s not needed anymore? That’s the sweet spot.

“There’s a concept in psychology called the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which shows that being alert, stressed or anxious can help you to perform better, up to a point,” Dr. Potter explains. “But then, there’s the downside of the curve. When you become too overwhelmed or anxious, it interferes with your performance.”

We talked with Dr. Potter about the benefits of a certain amount of anxiety and where the line is between helpful anxiety and anxiety that’s no longer serving you well.

The good side of stress and anxiety

Anxiety is a symptom of our “fight-or-flight” response, also called the stress response. When our bodies and minds sense danger, our sympathetic nervous system jumps in to protect us. That can be a good thing because it releases a cascade of hormones that get you in gear to protect yourself.

When your stress response is activated, you can feel symptoms of anxiety, like:

  • A racing heart.
  • Sweating.
  • Nausea.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Changes in mood.

It can feel uncomfortable to be in a stress response mode. But a certain amount of stress and anxiety has its perks.

Physical safety

When your stress response is working at its best, anxiety helps protect you from danger.

“When your stress hormones take over, they get your body ready to fight, run away or hide,” Dr. Potter confirms. “It’s a built-in system to save you in dangerous situations. And we need that to stay alive.”

For example, if you’re driving down a dark highway in a rainstorm, a healthy amount of anxiety can encourage you to keep your eyes on the road, slow down and stay vigilant for danger. You turn down the music, grip the wheel with both hands and even lean forward in your seat for a better view.

“A little anxiety can keep you alert and hypervigilant. In the right situations, that helps keep you safe,” Dr. Potter adds.

Of course, if your stress response kicks into overdrive and you start shaking or panicking while driving down that rainy road, it could cause further danger. More on that in a bit.

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Motivation

Anxiety alerts us to the troubles around us. And in small, well-timed doses, it can spur you to take action.

When you have a deadline looming, you may feel some anxiety about getting your work completed on time. So, you buckle down, focus and get it done. If you have a test coming up and worry you’re not well prepared, a healthy kick of anxiety can make you more inclined to study.

“If we didn’t have any anxiety, we might not be motivated to solve problems in our lives. If something causes some stress, you’ll be more likely to want to do something about it because we don’t like feeling stress,” Dr. Potter notes. “Sometimes, we need a bit of unpleasant motivation.”

The downside of stress and anxiety

Of course, there are drawbacks to anxiety, too. A small drip of anxiety at proper times can be helpful. But tidal waves of anxiety can make you lose your bearings.

Dr. Potter describes the benefits of stress and anxiety as being on a bell curve. Up to a point, a certain amount of anxiety is helpful. But when it goes too far, it can be harmful.

“A healthy amount of anxiety can serve a purpose and allow you to do some problem-solving. But it’s not helpful for anxiety to continue to stick around long after you’ve done what you can to resolve the situation,” she continues.

Let’s look at some examples:

Situation
Public speaking.
Helpful anxiety
Spurs you to prepare notecards and practice your speech ahead of time.
Unhelpful anxiety
Causes your voice to waver, your knees to shake and makes you lose your train of thought.
You spot a potentially suspicious mole.
Helpful anxiety
Prompts you to set up a call with a healthcare provider to get it checked.
Unhelpful anxiety
Has you researching skin cancer treatments and survival rates day and night.
Keeping up with news and social media.
Helpful anxiety
Keeps you informed about current events and connected with friends.
Unhelpful anxiety
Encourages you to keep scrolling for hours on end and reinforces a negative view of the world.
Playing baseball.
Helpful anxiety
Alerts you to step out of the batter’s box when a pitch comes at your head.
Unhelpful anxiety
Causes you to back away from every pitch in fear it could hit you.

Anxiety that lingers far beyond its usefulness can affect your mental and physical health in big ways. That can include troubles like:

  • Making it difficult to go about your day-to-day activities, like working or interacting with friends and family.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Low energy levels.
  • Feeling angry, irritable or depressed.
  • Changes in your appetite, like not eating or overeating.
  • Unhealthy weight loss or weight gain.
  • Stomach aches, headaches and muscle aches.

How to find balance

There’s a fine line between anxiety that benefits you well and anxiety that holds you back. And it can be tough to know the difference. But being able to walk that tightrope can make a big difference in how you feel and how you navigate stressful situations.

It comes down to finding a middle ground between pushing yourself to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations, but not flooding yourself with terrifying stimulation, Dr. Potter says.

“We can’t let ourselves fall prey to avoiding everything that causes discomfort. But we do want to push ourselves to safely confront our fears and see we don’t have to be disabled by them.”

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Try these strategies to use anxiety to your advantage:

  • Practice grounding techniques like meditation or breathing exercises in times of unhelpful anxiety.
  • Beware of doomscrolling and taking in unhealthy amounts of negative media.
  • Consider mental health treatment, like therapy or medication, if anxiety is keeping you from living a full life.

“Anxiety exists to protect us from scary situations. But in our lives, we have to do things sometimes that might feel scary,” Dr. Potter reflects. “But there’s a big difference between something that is an actual imminent danger and something that isn’t. And our brains don’t always know the difference.”

So, go ahead and lean into a bit of anxiety. It can help you stay safe and spur you into action when you need it. But if anxiety is no longer serving you well, talk with a healthcare professional. They can help you find ways to make anxiety work to your benefit. 

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