Answering Your Question: What Does Healthy Anxiety Mean?
As a champion for anxiety, I am often asked what does healthy anxiety mean exactly, and is there any such thing as good anxiety anyway. With anxiety being so uncomfortable, and fueling so many mental health problems these days, it’s no wonder people feel skeptical about anxiety serving any useful purpose at all.
After all, anxiety has earned a pretty bad rap, and for many people, its effect on their lives can feel debilitating. It is no secret that it can seriously diminish the quality of people’s lives, and studies indicate anxiety’s negative effects are on the rise, especially among young people.
But anxiety’s negative effects aren’t the whole story about this intrinsic, efficient, and resilient resource. Anxiety is not a negative thing in and of itself; it’s how we use it that defines how we experience it in our lives. Its fundamental purpose is to help us, and make our lives better.
So what does healthy anxiety mean?
1. Anxiety is a safe and informative feeling. It cannot hurt you, it doesn’t confuse you, but it is a feeling that’s uncomfortable enough to get and keep your attention. It signals a conflict to something we care about, and naming it helps you feel a sense of control.
2. Anxiety harnesses attention in a way that’s useful. It signals conflicts or situations that need your focus, and nudges attention and energy to the things that matter most to you.
3. Anxiety nudges focus back on track when we veer off it, reminding us to pay attention even when we may not want to.
4. Anxiety’s discomfort motivates you into doing things you may not want to do. What’s good for us isn’t always what is comfortable, or what we want to do. We enjoy rest, relaxation, and tuning out. We need to do these things to rest. But too much tuning out comes at a cost, and anxiety is a “prickly friend” that prods us along to keep working at the issues and problems that matter.
5. Anxiety is fuel to solve problems that matter to us. It’s motivation is fuel to do something. And doing something helps us discharge our anxiety, which in turn diminishes it.
Anxiety is complicated. It’s no secret that with the escalation of responsibilities and demands on our time, fewer of us know how to use this valuable resource anymore. In being overwhelmed by its discomfort and disruption in our lives, it isn’t hard to lose focus on anxiety’s purpose, confusing its feeling with its usefulness. It may even be tricky to know when anxiety is healthy, and when it’s not.
While it’s methods might be unappealing, anxiety’s efficiency in harnessing our attention is irrefutable. Anxiety helps tune us into the things that matter most to us. When we feel it, we need it: Something we care about is at risk, and our focus has drifted away. Anxiety nudges us back to what matters, and gives us the boost we need to take action.
Healthy anxiety helps us stay on top of our life, and make the needed changes to quiet its message. It keeps us focused and engaged, and can propel and steer us when intrinsic motivation fails us. It doesn’t overwhelm, and it doesn’t yell for too long. It is uncomfortable, but usable.
In our time of distraction and divided focus, anxiety might just be one of our most trusted adaptive resource, perpetually steering us back to our most important concerns.