Anxiety often gets a bad rap, and for good reason. Severe anxiety can prevent people from enjoying aspects of their lives and can perpetuate a sense of unease and fear which can be paralyzing. Severe anxiety can lead people to become disengaged and isolated from the world around them, and can make seemingly simple tasks difficult. However, a healthy amount of anxiety at the right time can actually be helpful by keeping us safe, motivating us and propelling us to action.

Anxiety can keep us safe by alerting us to a potential threat. At these times, our feelings of anxiety are actually sending us important messages about whether or not a given situation or person could be risky. For example, you are walking home from a friend’s house one evening and turn onto a dark path through an unlit park space. You suddenly stop and notice feelings of apprehension and anxiety as you look towards the isolated, dark space. You turn around and take an alternate route down a busy street lined with street lights. This is anxiety doing its job – keeping you safe! In contrast, severe anxiety can make us feel afraid of things that are actually safe and stop us from doing things we may otherwise find enjoyable.

A reasonable amount of anxiety can also motivate us to be prepared for upcoming challenges. For example, we may feel anxious at the thought of taking an important test or giving a presentation. This feeling may motivate us to study for the test or take some extra time to prepare for the presentation. On the other hand, significant anxiety could prevent us from taking the exam or giving the presentation at all, leading to missed opportunities and disappointment.

Finally, anxiety can propel us into action. Feelings of anxiety may indicate that something isn’t right or we are doing something that goes against our values, our needs or our hopes. This realization can lead to change, moving us closer to authenticity and what we want in our lives. Healthy anxiety also propels us into action by reacting quickly to a situation which may be dangerous or harmful. A lifeguard at a pool supervising a swimming lesson and a crossing guard walking a group of young children across the street are ready to react at any given moment to make sure the kids in their care are safe. Healthy anxiety drives this ability to react quickly, and should subside when the person’s task and responsibility are completed.

Anxiety stops becoming helpful when it impacts a person’s functioning and well being. More specifically, this may mean feeling anxious about things that are actually safe, avoiding things that create feelings of anxiety or continuing to feel anxious long after the anxiety-provoking event has occurred. Anxious thoughts can be overwhelming and the physical manifestations of anxiety (e.g. heart racing, sweating, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, gastro-intestinal pain) can cause distress. If you are struggling with anxiety that feels overwhelming, reach out and talk to a trusted person in your life, or connect with your local mental health agency for support. It can be helpful to feel connected to others around you and to not be alone in your struggle.


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