By Jessica Jeffers
Your mind is racing. You have trouble sleeping or concentrating. Maybe you’re nauseous or your heart palpitates. You’re worried about everything, no matter how big or how small. As anyone who experiences anxiety can tell you: it’s not fun.
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 40 million American adults are affected—that’s nearly 18% of the adult population. Anxiety disorders come in many different forms, but they all involve excessive amounts of worry.
One thing that’s easy for many people to forget is that anxiety is actually normal–in small doses. As Bret A. Moore describes in his book Taking Control of Anxiety, many people come to therapy with the unrealistic expectation that they can be rid of their worries entirely. “Trying to eliminate anxiety from your daily experience will leave you feeling frustrated and defeated,” Moore points out. “The key is [to learn] how to manage your anxiety through self-regulation, understanding, and acceptance.” Therefore, the goal of therapy typically is to learn techniques for keeping anxiety under control.
Anxiety evolved in humans primarily as a defense mechanism. It alerts us to potential dangers in our environment and encourages us to respond to these dangers. In this way, it’s an important response to potentially life-threatening situations, such as walking down a dark alley at night or encountering a bear while hiking. Worry becomes problematic, however, when it outweighs the actual amount of danger that is present and when it causes disruptions in your life.
Everyone experiences some level of worry about any number of issues. And these worries can serve a variety of functions that can actually be helpful. For instance:
- Some anxiety can lead to improved performance. If you’re worried about a big test, an important job interview, or leading a presentation, it’s likely that you will study harder or practice more. That preparation could mean that you end up doing better than you otherwise might have.
- Anxiety can serve as a motivator. Being anxious doesn’t feel good and most people who are experiencing anxiety focus on what they can do to reduce those feelings. This desire can often serve as the catalyst to change behaviors or situations that aren’t working.
- People who struggle with social anxiety are excessively concerned about what people might think of them. You don’t want this concern to get in the way of building relationships with others or pursuing goals, but at the same time it can help you become more attuned to the other person’s needs or wants.
- Visible physical responses to anxiety can serve as a means of communication. It can let others know that you aren’t comfortable, that you need help, and signs such as blushing or stammered speech can even indicate attraction to others.
Of course, excessive worrying can also have negative effects, like hesitation, confused thinking, and poor communication. The trick, as Moore puts it, is to find the right balance for you–which isn’t necessarily the right balance for others. Whether you’re doing it on your own or with the guidance of a mental health professional, part of taking control of anxiety involves finding that balance.
Moore, B.A. (2014) Taking control of anxiety. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.) Any anxiety disorder among adults. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml.