Is anxiety healthy?
In 2017, 284 million people worldwide were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and almost everyone has experienced some feelings of anxiety at some point in their lives. Feeling anxious is unpleasant and scary, but is it possible that anxiety is good for our health? We asked 8 experts in psychology, neuroscience and mental health, ‘Is anxiety healthy?’, here is what they said…
Is anxiety healthy?
6 out of 8 experts says ‘Yes’
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear. It can be a symptom of a condition such as PTSD, phobias or panic disorders, but it can also occur in those who do not suffer from a mental health condition. Feeling anxious can lead to physical sensations such as an increased heart rate, sweating, trembling or hyperventilation.
Why do people get anxious?
If feeling anxious is such an unpleasant experience, why is it so common? Dr Bethany Teachman, a psychology expert from Virginia University in the USA, explains that anxiety has important evolutionary value. She says “anxiety is meant to function as an alarm or warning signal to let us know that dangers lurk ahead so we can protect ourselves. It is a tremendously adaptive system and the associated bodily responses do a fantastic job at helping us manage objective dangers.”
She explains this with an example, “if a bear is chasing us in the woods, then an acute fear response with a racing heart and shortness of breath that prepares the body to flee, fight or freeze is just what we want to help escape the danger.”
Can anxiety be healthy?
Dr Jordan Davis, an expert in anxiety from Temple University in the USA, says “Yes, a certain amount of anxiety is healthy!”, this was unanimously agreed between the experts. The positive effects of anxiety are not limited to escaping from dangerous bears – Dr Teachman says “moderate levels of anxious arousal can improve our performance, when we think about the arousal in a healthy way – it’s hard to give a good, lively speech when we feel absolutely no arousal”
Dr Teachman adds that “Even high levels of anxiety are not themselves imminently harmful; a panic attack does not cause a heart attack.”
When does anxiety become unhealthy?
Dr Ivor Ebenezer, a neuroscientist from Portsmouth University in the UK, says “mild anxiety can be beneficial to an individual and be the driving force behind many of his or her achievements, excessive anxiety can lead to a clinical situation in which the person cannot function adequately.” He adds that “It should be noted that what is meant by the term “excessive” will vary from person. While some individuals may be able to deal adequately with stressful situations without major problems, others may find the same situations excessive and display symptoms of clinical anxiety.”
The downsides to anxiety can be both physical and emotional. Dr Teachman says “the sustained experience of anxiety and stress over time can contribute to coronary heart disease and other negative health outcomes.” She adds that “one of the significant risk factors for developing chronic anxiety is fearing the experience of anxiety, termed anxiety sensitivity, and repeatedly avoiding situations that trigger those feelings.”
How can we minimise the negative effects of anxiety?
Anxiety in moderation can be healthy and is essential to survive dangerous situations. In order to reap the benefits of our anxious feelings whilst avoiding the downsides, Dr Teachman suggests that we reframe how we think about anxiety. She says “It is time to develop a new mantra: Anxiety is uncomfortable, but not dangerous. Anxiety can be tolerated, so we don’t need to escape or avoid situations that make us anxious when no objective danger is present.” She suggests multiple tools to facilitate this change, “We can shift these patterns through cognitive behaviour therapy or other evidence-based approaches to treat anxiety or, for those who want to try shifting their anxious thinking on their own, try one of the online approaches.”
Dr Teachman concludes that, “Ironically, when we stop dreading anxiety, it’s amazing how much calmer we feel!”
Moderate levels of anxiety are both normal and healthy.
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