Anxiety is your Friend

Your anxiety probably feels like an intruder, like some foreign entity or parasite or oppressive presence.

In fact, anxiety is your friend, one of your best friends, and changing your perspective on anxiety from enemy to friend is essential: The sooner your perspective changes, the sooner you’ll begin make progress.

How is anxiety your friend? If you have an exam, anxiety correctly senses the threat of failure and motivates you to study. Once the book is open, anxiety helps you focus attention and concentrate on reading and absorbing the material. What would happen if you had no anxiety? You might never open your study books at all. In fact, you might never amount to anything, because you would never be motivated to move forward in life. To perceive threat, motivate you to action, narrow your attention so that you can effectively address the problem, these are the most important functions of normal anxiety. You can’t live without it, and you shouldn’t want to. If you consider anxiety to be your enemy, it’s important to change that perception right up front.

When does anxiety begin to cross over into a pathological range? The relationship between anxious arousal and performance is described by something called the Yerkes-Dodson curve (see the Figure). Notice that two types of tasks are described, simple and complex. Low arousal means low performance, for both simple and complex tasks. This is not opening the book, simply because you don’t care. Low arousal means low engagement. As arousal increases, performance for both simple and complex tasks also increases. At moderate levels of arousal, performance for simple or overlearned tasks also increases. So far so good.

But notice what happens as tasks become more complex or unfamilar. At higher levels of anxious arousal, anxiety begins to interfere with task performance. Your try to concentrate, may some progress, then lose your place. You start thinking about your anxiety. Catastrophic thoughts interrupt and overwhelm your focus, your memory, your problem solving ability, thoughts like “I’ll never be able to finish this.” You try to start over, and the whole cycle starts again. Eventually anxiety begins to seem like your enemy, because it interferes or prevents you from moving forward on your goals.

The problem is: Almost everything in life requires that you put yourself in a position of some discomfort and persevere. Anything worth achieving demands a price. But you have intense anxiety, and that means keeping life simple. Simple is the only thing you can succeed at. At that point, it’s not possible to advance in your life goals anymore, which means your life is stuck, frozen, which means there’s no opportunity for self affirmation or self-praise or the feeling validated that comes with significant accomplishments.

In general, then, anxiety is trying to protect you, trying to look out for your best interests. That’s its function. When you feel anxiety, it’s helpful to think of it not as your enemy, but as a your friend, perhaps a misguided friend. A true friend who thought you were in danger would attempt to alert you. A true friend who believed you were ignoring them at enormous personal risk would yell louder and louder to get your attention. Eventually, your true friend would be screaming in your ear. That’s how anxiety works, too. This suggests that you might reconsider your anxiety, appreciate what it’s trying to do, and befriend it, rather than try to suppress it.