5 Ways Anxiety Can Be Helpful

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Anxiety can be helpful but most people think of anxiety, more specifically generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), in a negative sense. It is an emotion that makes us feel uncomfortable and tense, and it is a state we want to relieve as soon as possible.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

GAD can cause problems in everyday situations due to symptoms such as these:

  • Persistent worrying or obsession about small or large concerns that are out of proportion to the impact of the event
  • Inability to set aside or let go of a worry
  • Inability to relax, restlessness, and feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Difficulty concentrating, or the feeling that your mind "goes blank"
  • Worrying about excessively worrying
  • Distress about making decisions for fear of making the wrong decision
  • Carrying every option in a situation all the way out to its possible negative conclusion
  • Difficulty handling uncertainty or indecisiveness

Physical signs and symptoms may cause a variety of ailments, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension or muscle aches
  • Trembling, feeling twitchy
  • Being easily startled
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sweating
  • Nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome
  • Headaches

How Anxiety Is Helpful

Similar to eustress, a type of "positive" stress that keeps us vital and excited about life, anxiety can also offer a variety of positive things to our lives:

  1. Motivation: Sometimes we need a dose of anxiety to motivate to do things. If you did not fear negative consequences that led to feeling some anxiety, it would be unlikely that you could be dedicated to the rules of your workplace, be able to complete schoolwork, or become motivated to do something that does not sound pleasurable. Research shows that anxiety is a powerful motivating force. It drives us to do things in a way that few other feelings do.
  2. Preparation: If you have a big speech, test or event on the horizon, you may feel anxious as it approaches. This anxiety drives you to prepare for the situation, to cover all the bases and to consider what you would do in worst-case scenarios. Certainly, people can do all of these things without anxiety, but it is our body’s natural way of driving us to do it. Studies show that in certain situations, anxiety can help you be more prepared for a disaster or difficult situation.
  3. Attention: When we are anxious, our attention shifts to things that are important in our lives. It makes us recognize things that deserve our attention and then becomes instrumental in preparation and motivation. When you are anxious about an upcoming event, your anxiety forces you to recognize it and pay attention in a way that will ideally help you succeed.
  4. Protection: Since anxiety is often related to fear, it is a way to protect us from danger. We can become anxious in situations that could cause us to harm or even kill us, and this natural anxiety feeling prevents that. Unfortunately for people with GAD, this is the mechanism that often contributes to viewing many situations as dangerous which actually are not.
  5. Communication: Finally, when people are anxious they are compelled to communicate and share these feelings. It is a way our body helps us find support and a safe place, and it can be effective in helping relationships work properly.

The next time you are experiencing anxiety, take a moment and ask yourself what purpose this anxiety is serving you, is it helpful or not. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to manage your anxiety.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders.

  2. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

  3. Gonçalves J, Lopes P, Esteves F, Fernández-Berrocal P. Must We Suffer to Succeed?: When Anxiety Boosts Motivation and Performance. Journal of Individual Differences. 2017;38:113-124. doi:10.1027/1614-0001/a000228

  4. Wirtz P, Rohrbeck C, Burns K. Anxiety effects on disaster precautionary behaviors: A multi-path cognitive model. J Health Psychol. 2019;24(10):1401-1411. doi:10.1177%2F1359105317720277

  5. Hengen K, Alpers G. What's the Risk? Fearful Individuals Generally Overestimate Negative Outcomes and They Dread Outcomes of Specific Events. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1676. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01676

Additional Reading
  • Mayo Clinic. Generalized Anxiety Disorder.