“Anxiety.” The very word evokes discomfort. Its effects—shortness of breath, pounding heart, muscle tension—are outright distressing. And there’s more of it than ever. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, half of young American adults have significant symptoms. It’s no wonder that the anxiety epidemic is causing us much consternation and concern.
But, as a clinician and researcher, I see a much bigger problem. In our society’s quest to be anxiety-free, we tend to miss out on many valuable opportunities presented by this normal human emotion.
In and of itself, anxiety is not deadly, and it certainly is not a disease or pathology. Quite the contrary: being able to feel anxious shows that our fight-or-flight system is operational, which is an indicator of brain and sensory health. Once we accept that anxious arousal is a normal, albeit uncomfortable, part of life, we can use it to thrive.
Here are three ways anxiety can help you:
It can build your emotional strength and resilience
Working out at the gym is supposed to be hard. By its very nature, a “good workout” is uncomfortable, since it involves pushing our physical strength and aerobic capacity past what you can easily do. Yes, you can overdo it in the gym and push too hard, but the sweet spot of exercise is always a somewhat strenuous experience.
More From TIME
Similarly, if you want to build emotional strength and resilience, you need to face some degree of mental adversity. Of course, traumatic events and abuse tend to cause more harm than good, but the experience of—and perseverance through—occasional anxiety, stress, and tension substantially increases your emotional fortitude.
For example, one of the most effective treatments for anxiety is exposure therapy, which involves systematically confronting one’s fears, head-on, in reasonable and increasing doses, over time. With the help of a therapist, individuals with phobias to anything from snakes or spiders, to heights or medical procedures, gradually encounter that which makes them anxious. As they exercise their emotional strength—voluntarily and courageously—they become desensitized to their anxiety, and its effects decrease.
In my clinical practice, I have treated hundreds of patients with exposure therapy, and in many instances, individuals emerge not only less phobically anxious, but also with greater resilience in general. In one particularly memorable case, I helped a young woman overcome a severe case of hypochondriasis (anxiety fixated on her health) with this method. Years later, when her newborn child had a serious health complication requiring life-saving surgery, she handled the situation with incredible fortitude and calm. Anxiety can provide opportunities to flex our neural and emotional muscles, developing greater mental capacity to face day-to-day stressors more effectively.
It can increase your emotional intimacy and connection
Humans are social creatures. The number one predictor of happiness and flourishing in late life is not great genes, financial success, or fame. It’s the quality of our relationships. In this same way, clinical science has identified that sharing our anxieties with our loved ones is one of the most effective strategies to build connection. When my patients learn to open up and share their anxieties with their partners, they almost always report a greater sense of emotional intimacy.
Again, anxiety is a normal human emotion, and if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a relationship that matters enough, you will feel anxious at some point! Even in the most secure relationships, we naturally feel some anxiety about whether the love we receive is truly unconditional. As international relationship expert Sue Johnson teaches, when we embrace and express our need for connection during challenging moments (e.g., “I’m having a hard time right now and could really use your support”) it begets greater connection and turns our anxiety into love.
Recently, a young married couple (let’s call them Marty and Sheryl) came to me in distress over a significant financial dispute. Sheryl was anxious about Marty’s spending relative to their bank balance, and Marty saw Sheryl as being overly frugal. Months of mutual blame and recrimination had eroded trust and connection, without any change in monetary behaviors or financial status.
I encouraged the couple to express the roots of their fears to one another. Marty opened up that he was terrified of Sheryl losing interest in their relationship if they weren’t materially comfortable. Sheryl, in turn, shared that she had seen her own parents almost divorce due to financial strain. It took several months, but the financial dispute eventually became less of an issue, since Marty and Sheryl both realized their respective behaviors were coming from a place of love: They simply had different ways of trying to preserve their connection. By recognizing and expressing their anxieties, they were able to strengthen their emotional bond and deepen their connection.
It can help you recalibrate and rebalance
From time to time, all of us find ourselves at the end of our rope. Our responsibilities pile up, our resources break down, and we just don’t have enough time to get everything done. We feel uncomfortably anxious most, if not all, of the time.
In such cases, what we’re experiencing is called stress. Simply put, the demands placed upon us outweigh our available resources. Just like a set of scales going out of balance, dealing with stress is almost mathematical: We either need to decrease our demands, or increase our resources (or both). There are no other solutions.
Many times, when my patients are overwhelmed they tend to take on more demands. Ironically, they take on additional projects at work, volunteer for community service, and provide additional support to their friends. This happens because it’s hard to acknowledge when we are struggling, and easier to avoid thinking about how overwhelmed we feel—and pretend that everything is ok—when we’re focused on work.
Unfortunately, this can lead to disastrous consequences since, at some point the scales cannot stand being out of balance and they break. Working harder, faster, and longer hours when one is already ragged can create chronic stress, which has been associated with heart disease, cancer, and stroke, as well as numerous less severe medical conditions.
Medicating away symptoms of stress may help us to function day-to-day for a while, but this tends to make things worse in the long run. Again, the only real solutions to stress are to decrease our demands or increase our resources.
Therefore, when we feel genuinely overwhelmed and anxious because of stress, it’s our body’s way of telling us to recalibrate and rebalance. Ultimately, we are all finite creatures in a massive world, and nobody is truly limitless. When we heed our internal cues and acknowledge our fallibility, we emerge more focused and healthier overall—and also less stressed and anxious.
Anxiety can be a healthy, helpful emotion that is a constructive aspect of human life. Acute anxiety can strengthen our emotional capacity when we face our fears. Anxiety can foster emotional connection when we convey our vulnerable feelings to others. And in the form of stress, anxiety can serve as an internal barometer to remain balanced and healthy. It’s about time we start to put it to good use.
More Must-Reads From TIME
- Inside the White House Program to Share America's Secrets
- Meet the 2024 Women of the Year
- East Palestine, One Year After Train Derailment
- The Closers: 18 People Working to End the Racial Wealth Gap
- Long COVID Doesn’t Always Look Like You Think It Does
- Column: The New Antisemitism
- The 13 Best New Books to Read in March
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time