Editor’s Note: This article explores some of the benefits of anxiety through a personal lens and based on research linked throughout. For individualized insights and care in the realm of mental health, please connect with a trusted health care professional.
It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I signed up for it anyway: to read some of my writing in front of an audience. I was so anxious about it, so afraid that I might freeze while in front of everybody, that I might panic and cut my reading short so I could be anxious in solitude, that I practiced immensely. I read and reread my piece aloud to myself. I cut words I stumbled on. I shortened the superfluous. I practiced some more. And when it came time for me to get up in front of a big group of people to read my own writing—I didn’t trip up on a single word. Not for three minutes.
It took until I sat back down in my chair afterward, hands shaking, adrenaline still coursing through my veins, thick like syrup, that I realized I had done it without messing up at all.
How could I have done this well on something I was so anxious about?
The answer lies within the question. My anxiety made me prepare to nearly a point of excess. I practiced until it would be harder to fail than to succeed. And then I did it: I delivered. I read my secret writings, my vulnerable words, and I did it in front of writers and teachers and academics. A nightmare if you ask an anxious person.
One might argue that the reason I did well was because I practiced. And one would be right to say that. But the reason I practiced to the extent I did was because of my anxiety.
Anxiety isn’t a blanket affliction, covering everybody in exactly the same way, but it seems to me that those with a propensity to feel anxious operate just a little differently. They tend to think things through before doing them. In the example of reading in front of an audience, an anxious person might think about all the things that can go wrong: losing your spot in your piece; locking your knees and fainting (this was a sincere fear of mine); panicking during your reading and needing to leave halfway through.
Anxiety, with incredibly good reason, has a bad reputation. It makes functioning very challenging sometimes. But there’s a lot to be said about changing the way we think about anxiety.
What’s beneficial about this type of agonized, painful thinking is that it can really make you prepare.
I went into this reading having already considered the worst outcomes. Not only did I consider them, but I just assumed I would experience each of them, and therefore I knew exactly what to do when those bad outcomes inevitably came for me. Except they never did. I had read my piece so many times that if I’d gotten lost, I would’ve known exactly where on the page to look to keep on going. I made sure to keep my knees slightly bent—a skill I learned in high school choir—so that I wouldn’t lock them and faint in front of an audience. And I addressed my fear of panicking halfway through by reminding myself I only have three minutes. I can do almost anything for only three minutes, including something I and countless others are terrified of: public speaking.
Psychologist Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D. says anxiety has a healthy function: to stimulate preparatory behavior. You don’t need to be anxious in order to prepare or not procrastinate. But, if you are one of those people around whom anxiety likes to lace its fingers, there are ways to use it to your advantage. Like knowing the worst outcomes and working back from there; like preparing until it’s no longer feasible to be more prepared.
Anxiety, with incredibly good reason, has a bad reputation. It makes functioning very challenging sometimes. But there’s a lot to be said about changing the way we think about anxiety and using it as a force for productivity.
Another upside to anxiety? It often shines a light on our core values.
Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, wrote a brilliant book called Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion. It’s a science-based book that helps readers shift their perspective of anxiety from that of a jail cell to something that can boost performance, create compassion, foster creativity, and provide you with other superpowers, as she calls them. In the book, Dr. Suzuki says the sources of our anxiety are pointers toward what we value in life, indicating what is important or valuable to us.
I think that is incredible. The things we get anxious about are actually indications of us being passionate about something. It means we care, and we care enough that we’re proactive about preserving what’s valuable to us.
All that requires a certain level of understanding. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Suzuki says there’s a gift that can come from your anxiety: the “what if” list. “What if I don’t know the answer? What if they ask me about this part of the book and I can’t remember the study? Everybody can turn your ‘what if’ list into a to-do list.” She goes on to say that our stress and anxiety activate our muscles to do something, to take action.
The things we get anxious about are actually indications of us being passionate about something. It means we care, and we care enough that we’re proactive about preserving what’s valuable to us.
The list of benefits goes on…
From the Harvard Business Review series of essays on leading through anxiety: “Decades of research on emotional intelligence have shown that people who understand their own feelings have higher job satisfaction, stronger job performance, and better relationships; are more innovative; and can synthesize diverse opinions and lessen conflict.”
All of that sounds great. So what’s the caveat?
It’s one thing to use your anxiety to propel you forward, but to use it so much; to think about it over and over and over—that’s just going to stop you in your tracks. Worse, that’s going to stop you in your tracks and pull you into the cloudy state of panic that all of us anxious folk most fear.
If you get to that point, here are some helpful things you can do next time you’re feeling anxious. And if I know my fellow anxious people like I think I do, I know you’ll read it now so that the next time anxiety comes knocking, you will be prepared. Pair that with 50 ways to beat anxiety, written by Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Anxiety Toolkit.
Another resource—the best I’ve found (besides therapy)—is a book called Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks by Barry McDonagh. It helps you look at anxiety through the same lens that Dr. Wendy Suzuki suggests: as a positive behavior that can actually benefit you—but only if you keep it under control. This book gives you practical ways to temper your anxiety, and they work. They work for me like nothing has before.
Always, it must be said: If you need help, our friends at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are here for you, any time of the day. The number is 1.800.273.8255. Starting July 16, 2022, those in the United States can now dial 988 and will be connected directly to the Lifeline. Here’s the website for further information.
Take care of yourself.
Treat your head like the temple that it is. And when you’re able to, remember that at the beginning of time, anxiety was our friend. It kept us alive. There are benefits to being anxious, we just sometimes need to be reminded of them.
Kolina Cicero is enamored with stories – reading them, writing them, getting lost within them. Other things she loves include yoga, traveling, and taking cooking, Italian, and writing classes. Her first children’s book, Rosie and the Hobby Farm, was published in July 2020.