Anxiety generally isn’t a pleasant experience for anyone.
When anxious, you might feel on edge or even scared. You may have an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and trouble concentrating. It can be difficult to see how there might be a positive side to this often debilitating experience.
Still, it may be possible to reframe the experience of anxiety to find some hidden positives, even in the midst of nervousness, stress, and worry.
Here’s what the experts say about the positive side of anxiety.
Although experiencing anxiety may not feel good, it actually serves a pretty important evolutionary purpose: to protect you from danger.
“Evolutionarily, anxiety and the stress that underlies those anxious feelings evolved to protect us,” says Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience and psychology at NYU and author of “Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion.”
In her book, Suzuki identifies anxiety as a key component for optimal living. Every emotion we experience has an evolutionary purpose, she says, and anxiety is designed to draw our attention to our vulnerabilities.
“2.5 million years ago… there was the real threat of lions coming at us,” says Suzuki. “Our stress and anxiety was designed to put us into action: either fight the lion, or run away from the lion.”
That important protective mechanism is still active. Nowadays, it’s usually responding to a threat that isn’t as immediate as a lion, like paying the bills, coping with current events, or processing the realities of climate change.
Sometimes, the nervous system gets triggered by threats that aren’t there at all. This can range from unpleasant to terrifying.
Even so, if we approach anxiety as something to avoid or get rid of, Suzuki says that we actually miss out on an opportunity to improve our lives.
“It’s easy to say ‘I hate anxiety, get it away. I don’t want it anymore,’ when in fact that protective aspect is essential for our lives,” says Suzuki.
Instead of pushing anxiety away, she says, you can learn to understand your anxiety and work with it. Once you do that, you can become empowered to respond appropriately, self-soothe, and give your body what it needs.
According to Suzuki, getting curious about what your anxiety wants to tell you can actually lead to joy.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to develop, grow, and adapt throughout life, and it plays a role in helping you relate to anxiety differently.
“It’s the brain’s ability to change and respond to the environment, and it can respond in different ways,” says Suzuki.
It takes work and practice, but your relationship to anxiety can be shifted from “I just want it to go away,” to “I can actually learn from my anxiety,” in a way that decreases stress.
Positive coping mechanisms or management techniques can create changes in the brain that make it more resilient to anxiety.
In turn, increasing resilience makes coping progressively easier.
When it comes to coping responses for anxiety, there are both positive and negative ones.
Positive coping mechanisms can contribute to improved well-being, while negative ones may feel good in the short term but are harmful or counterproductive long term.
For example, says Suzuki, although drinking alcohol can feel great in the moment, too much of it can disrupt sleep patterns and emotional regulation.
On the flip side, learning positive active coping mechanisms, such as physical exercise and meditation, can help build resilience to anxiety and have extra benefits for your health.
Positive coping mechanisms include:
By using exercise to cope with anxiety or stress, you gain bonus health benefits from engaging in physical activity.
“Exercise is powerful to decrease anxiety and improve positive feelings,” says Suzuki. Exercise can be an effective tool for regulating and improving mood.
According to a 2017 study, lifelong exercise is associated with a longer life span and delayed onset of roughly 40 chronic conditions and diseases, including:
Regular exercise offers an array of other health benefits, including:
“Meditation brings you into the moment and reminds you, ‘I’m OK right now, I have my breath, I can breathe in and breathe out. And really, that’s all I need,’” says Suzuki.
According to a 2020 study, regular meditation can build resilience to everyday stressors and help individuals respond to their environment with greater calmness and ease.
The same study also showed that people who have long-term meditation practices have improved emotional regulation in times of crisis.
Health benefits of regular meditation include:
Training techniques can help you utilize anxiety’s arousal response to improve:
Some techniques include:
“When you go through difficult times, there’s an enormous amount of learning that comes from that,” says Suzuki. “Anxiety is something that’s forcing you to deal with difficult situations, sometimes constantly. What’s the learning that can come out of that?”
Suzuki says that learning how useful negative emotions can be can help you shift your mindset about anxiety. They’re especially useful to teach you about what you value.
After you understand the message of your “negative” feelings, you can use it to determine what gifts can come from your anxiety.
Worry ‘to-do list’
Anxiety can often lead to over-worrying, which can be overwhelming and unhelpful.
On the other hand, worrying is just your mind trying to make sense of a situation. Your worries can be used to address concerns and inform your decision-making.
Suzuki gives the example of a high-paid lawyer friend who over-worries with “what ifs.” She then uses those “what ifs” to make a list, addressing them all to make her cases airtight.
By thinking through all the possible scenarios, you can examine those that seem likely, unlikely, or impossible. This can help you look at a situation more clearly.
Recognizing anxiety’s gifts
Empathy, the ability to understand and connect with others’ feelings, is sometimes associated with anxiety.
According to a 2019 study, generalized anxiety may translate to increased concern for others or how your actions might affect others.
This kind of sensitivity can be seen as a gift.
When it comes to turning your anxiety into empathy, Suzuki suggests asking yourself how you can be of help to someone else, especially someone experiencing anxiety.
“Because you know what it feels like,” she says, “you [may] also know how to help them.”
Research suggests there’s a connection between arousal and athletic performance, and stress may help athletes perform better.
The pressure of a goal or potential accomplishment can help athletes focus and harness increased arousal to enhance their performance.
Anxiety increases levels of adrenaline in the body, which heightens arousal and wakefulness. This can translate into an increased response rate and feelings of vigor and energy, leading to increased alertness and motivation, particularly for physical tasks.
Although there can be benefits to reframing anxiety as a positive, it’s important not to get caught in the trap of toxic positivity.
This happens when you focus on positive emotions and exclude or repress the negative. Relating to anxiety in a new way is very different from denying that it’s happening at all.
It’s also important to be compassionate toward yourself. You aren’t at fault for having anxiety, and there’s nothing wrong with experiencing it.
If you experience anxiety that interferes with day-to-day living, it’s important to talk to a healthcare professional so you can receive support. You may benefit from determining whether you have a diagnosable condition, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Support can come in many forms, including therapy and medication.
Anxiety may not be pleasant, but it can have hidden positive benefits.
These include empathy, improved focus and performance, and emotional intelligence.
These qualities can be harnessed to improve your quality of life and overall well-being, reframing your relationship with anxiety from one of struggle to one of acceptance and transformation.
Marnie Vinall is a freelance writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She’s written extensively for a range of publications, covering everything from politics and mental health to nostalgic sandwiches and the state of her own vagina. You can reach Marnie via Twitter, Instagram, or her website.