The Upside of Anxiety
The psychological malady that may actually be one of humanity’s most useful tools
This is Scott Parazynski. He’s a doctor — which can be stressful.
This is Scott Parazynski getting ready to go into space — because he is also an astronaut — which can be a lot more stressful.
And this is Scott Parazynski dangling by his feet from a 50-foot boom to make emergency repairs to the International Space Station … which will take seven hoursi … and where there are bolts that could tear his suitii … and where these solar panels are still running with live electricity.
Which is [$*%^] your pants levels of stressful.
What’s the trait that allows someone to keep their cool while doing something this insanely risky? Someone actually asked Scott Parazynski that very question. His answer?
America has an anxiety problem.
No idea why. Things have been so normal lately.
It’s estimated that about 20 percent of American adults — more than 60 million people — suffer from an anxiety disorder every year.iv And around 1/3 of us will deal with this affliction at some point in our lives.v
What’s more, all the signs seem to indicate that things are only getting worse.
In 2022, the number of Americans who described their mental health as at least “good” was the lowest in 20 years of polling.vi Prescriptions for the class of anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines — things like Xanax or Ativan — increased by 67 percent between 1996 and 2013. vii And in 2019, 96 percent of teenagers told pollsters that they thought anxiety and depression were a problem amongst their peers.viii
So, what’s so wrong with us all of a sudden?
It’s not that this anxiety is all a figment of our imagination. It’s very real. It’s that, in many cases, we’re probably thinking about it the wrong way.
Here’s what we mean: We tend to treat anxiety like a dysfunction; like a disease that needs to be cured. But, as many psychologists point out, we’re not going to cure it because it’s an essential part of being human. Anxiety is a feeling hardwired into us by millions of years of evolution.
Now, that may sound a little depressing, but in reality … maybe it’s kind of a gift? As one scholar puts it: Anxiety is like the brain’s smoke alarm. It’s there to alert us to problems we might not otherwise notice. And if we deal with the problems … we shut off the alarm.
That’s not just the optimistic spin on it, by the way. A 2012 study showed that anxiety significantly increases brain power, making us more vigilant and better able to detect dangerix — which might explain why this trait has stayed with us for so long.
Because this is what a caveman with anxiety looked like.
And this is what a caveman without anxiety looked like.
So, what does this mean in today’s world? That a lot of us would probably start feeling better if we stopped treating anxiety as a threat and started treating it as a tool. That’s the conclusion of Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a clinical psychologist at the City University of New York and the author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad).
And as she points out, research suggests that the more we try to avoid our anxiety … the worse we make it.
In recent years, for example, there’s been a growing trend of putting “trigger warnings” on reading material that contains content that some people may find upsetting. Yet a series of studies found that the warnings did nothing to lessen negative reactions and in some cases made them worse.x The most vulnerable people actually showed more anxiety when they read the same passage with a trigger warning than without it.xi
Because if you give people cues that they’re supposed to be upset … they’re more likely to get upset.
Another powerful example of this principle came from a 2019 Yale study on children with severe anxiety. Many of their parents tried to cope with their kids’ worries by avoiding the factors that triggered it. So, if their child was afraid of flying, the family took road trips. If their kid was socially anxious, they’d stop having guests over to their house. That solved the immediate problem, but in the long run left their children unequipped to handle challenging situations.
So, rather than giving the children therapy, the Yale study gave it to the parents — who were taught to acknowledge their children’s concerns but work with them to overcome them. The result? After 12 weeks of therapy, 87 percent of the children showed significantly less anxiety.xii Dealing with the problem head-on led to real growth.
Perhaps the best news here is that embracing anxiety rather than running away from it turns out to be a kind of superpower. In fact, there’s a stunning array of research that shows that engaging with the sources of our anxiety actually improves our lives.
A 2008 study found that when people with anxiety were placed in a brainstorming session, they came up with more — and more creative — ideas than people who weren’t anxious, because they dedicated more effort to trying to solve problems.xiii
Another study found that soldiers exposed to rocket attacks were less likely to suffer PTSD later on if they were more willing to confront the sources of their anxiety head on.xiv
In 2013, Harvard researchers put socially anxious people through their nightmare scenario: having them give an impromptu speech in front of a panel of judges. But there was one catch: They told the speakers to interpret their anxiety as a sign that they were ready to rise to the challenge. The result: The participants were more confident and less anxious. The results could even be seen in steadier heart rates and lower blood pressure.xv
Anxiety is a real and widespread problem. And there’s no question that the most severe cases require professional help.
But for the rest of us? Anxiety is what we make of it. We don’t have to be paralyzed by that sense of uncertainty. That nervous energy can actually fuel our accomplishments. And with the right mindset, there’s probably no limit to what we can accomplish.
Ok, except for this.
Listen to your anxiety on this one.
- "The ISS Engineering Feat: Solar Array Repair" (Rafe Van Wagenen) — ISS National Laboratory
- "Nine Years Ago an Emergency Doc Performed “Hairy” Surgery in Space" (Eric Berger) — ARS Technica
- Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad) — Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, pg. 6
- Ibid, pg. 14
- "How To Use Anxiety to Your Advantage" (Tracy Dennis-Tiwary) — BBC
- "Americans’ Reported Mental Health at New Low; More Seek Help" (Megan Brenan) — Gallup
- "Increasing Benzodiazepine Prescriptions and Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1996–2013" (Marcus A. Bachhuber, et al.) — American Journal of Public Health
- Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad) — Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, pg. 99
- "The Adaptive Threat Bias in Anxiety: Amygdala–Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex Coupling and Aversive Amplification" (Oliver J. Robinson, et al.) — NeuroImage
- "What if Trigger Warnings Don’t Work?" (Jeannie Suk Gersen) — The New Yorker
- "Parent-Based Treatment as Efficacious as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Childhood Anxiety: A Randomized Noninferiority Study of Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions" (Eli R. Lebowitz, et al.) — Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- "Hedonic Tone and Activation Level in the Mood-Creativity Link: Toward a Dual Pathway to Creativity Model" (C.K. De Dreu, et al.) — Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
- "Attention Bias Away From Threat During Life Threatening Danger Predicts PTSD Symptoms at One-Year Follow-up" (I. Wald M.A, et al.) — Depression and Anxiety
- “Changing the Conceptualization of Stress in Social Anxiety Disorder: Affective and Physiological Consequences” (Jeremy P. Jamieson, et al.) — Clinical Psychological Science
Footage | The New Yorker // Harper Wave: Tracy Dennis-Tiwary // The Association for Psychological Science: Clinical Psychological Science // Depression and Anxiety // Getty: Frederick M. Brown, Houston Chronicle, Stan Honda, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Larry Washburn, AFP, JPSchrage, Dave & Les Jacobs, Issarawat Tattong, CatLane, Praetorianphoto, Amdizdarevic, Brandon Bell, Thai Liang Lim, Ekaterina Goncharova, Gado, Captainflash, Allanswart, Wilatlak Villette, Chansom Pantip, James W. Porter, Paul Souders, Yevgen Romanenko, Patstock, Heritage Images, Joecicak, Aldomurillo, Jaroon, Katkov, Junak, Yuanyuan Yan, Thanasis Zovoilis, Vadimguzhva, ZargonDesign, Gearstd, Drbimages, LightFieldStudios, Petrunine, Shiv Mer, Zyabich, Gpointstudio, Viacheslav Peretiatko, M-gucci, Nirat, ALotOfPeople // Pexels: Monstera Production, George Dolgikh, Ricky Esquivel, Cup of Couple, NEOSiAM 2021, Michael Tampakakis, Jonathan Petersson, Cottonbro Studio, Pixabay, Zain Abba, Vova Kras, Karolina Grabowska, RDNE Stock project, Lukas, Lombe K, Gustavo AC, Cordeiro Suekel, Mart Production // Unsplash: Jake Weirick, NASA, Gritt Zheng, Christina Victoria Craft, Carolina Nichitin, Laurence Cruz, Kelly Sikkema, Se Nuno, Alex Wong, Bailey Zindel, Tyler Lastovich, Robina Weermeijer, Imat Bagja Gumilar, Andrew Neel, Hal Gatewood, John McArthur, Beth Macdonald, Casey Olsen, Kenny Eliason, Benjamin Rascoe, Malik Mccotter Jordan, Philip Martin, Alex Radelich // Motion Array: Tyler // Action VFX // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.
- ISS National Laboratory
"The ISS Engineering Feat: Solar Array Repair" (Rafe Van Wagenen)
- ARS Technica
"Nine Years Ago an Emergency Doc Performed “Hairy” Surgery in Space" (Eric Berger)
- Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad)
Book by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary
"How To Use Anxiety to Your Advantage" (Tracy Dennis-Tiwary)
"Americans’ Reported Mental Health at New Low; More Seek Help" (Megan Brenan)
- American Journal of Public Health
"Increasing Benzodiazepine Prescriptions and Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1996–2013" (Marcus A. Bachhuber, et al.)
"The Adaptive Threat Bias in Anxiety: Amygdala–Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex Coupling and Aversive Amplification" (Oliver J. Robinson, et al.)
- The New Yorker
"What if Trigger Warnings Don’t Work?" (Jeannie Suk Gersen)
- Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
"Parent-Based Treatment as Efficacious as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Childhood Anxiety: A Randomized Noninferiority Study of Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions" (Eli R. Lebowitz, et al.)
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
"Hedonic Tone and Activation Level in the Mood-Creativity Link: Toward a Dual Pathway to Creativity Model" (C.K. De Dreu, et al.)
- Depression and Anxiety
"Attention Bias Away From Threat During Life Threatening Danger Predicts PTSD Symptoms at One-Year Follow-up" (I. Wald M.A, et al.)
- Clinical Psychological Science
“Changing the Conceptualization of Stress in Social Anxiety Disorder: Affective and Physiological Consequences” (Jeremy P. Jamieson, et al.)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “In Praise of Anxiety” (Wall Street Journal)
- “The Upside of Anxiety” (New York Times)
- “Being Anxious or Sad Does Not Make You Mentally Ill” (The Atlantic)
- “3 Reasons Why Anxiety Is Good for You” (Psychology Today)
- “How to Use Anxiety to Your Advantage” (BBC)
- “This Simple Fix Could Help Anxious Kids” (New York Times)
- “If Humans Are Social Creatures, Why Did Social Anxiety Evolve?” (Discover)