Anxiety is a triumph of human evolution.’– Tracy Dennis-Tiwary
Think about those times you felt anxious.
You may have been running late for a meeting at work, about to write an important exam, or meeting someone for a first date.
Perhaps your heart was racing with butterflies flapping around in your tummy.
That discomfort you felt?
You (understandably) didn’t like it and thought it was ‘bad’.
The widespread perception, after all, is that anxiety is bad.
But is it?
Psychologist and author Tracy Dennis-Tiwary doesn’t think anxiety is the problem; it’s our response to anxiety that is.
In an essay published in The Wall Street Journal, she tells us why anxiety ‘is a triumph of human evolution’:
Anxiety prompts action
Anxiety is a response that, through evolution, emerged hand in hand with our ability to think about and plan for the uncertain future. It was Charles Darwin (the ‘father of evolution’), along with psychologists Nico Frijda and Joseph Campos, who discovered that anxiety – like other ‘unpleasant’ emotions – offered an evolutionary advantage.
Unpleasant emotions serve a purpose: they give us important information. Fear, for example, lets you know that you may be in harm’s way and prepares the body and mind to fight or flee.
Focused on the future, anxiety, on the other hand, draws your attention to events and situations that lie ahead. Will you get that job you had your eye on? Will you manage to sustain the relationship with your significant other?
Worrying about the future prompts you to prepare for that job interview thoroughly and take steps to ensure that your relationship with your significant other stands the test of time.
If you didn’t feel the discomfort brought on by anxiety, you would be less likely to sit up and take action.
Anxiety prompts us into action.
Anxiety motivates and increases focus
Dopamine – the ‘feel-good’ hormone – is typically released when you find an experience pleasurable and when you anticipate a reward (something pleasurable). However, scientists have found that high levels of dopamine are also released when you feel anxious. The increase in dopamine then activates areas of the brain that prepares and motivates you.
In a 2011 set of studies where anxiety was induced in one group of young adults, and happiness, in the other group, the anxious group demonstrated a greater ability to focus and hold their attention during the experiment.
Anxiety equips the body to face challenges
In another set of studies, researchers had adults with social anxiety disorder participate in an experiment that was distressing to them: they had to give a speech in front of judges. Half of the participants were taught to interpret cues such as racing heart, butterflies-in-stomach sensations, and fumbling over words as feedback that they were preparing for the challenge they were about to face.
Taught to view anxiety as an evolutionary advantage rather than a hindrance, these participants performed better than those that weren’t taught to do so. This shows us that holding the belief that anxiety is an advantage better prepares our bodies to face challenges.
According to Dr Dennis-Tiwary, perceiving and treating anxiety as if it were something bad hinders us from distinguishing normal anxiety from anxiety disorders. The latter occurs when our anxiety coping methods actually heighten anxiety and disrupt functionality.
For example, teenagers who spend hours scrolling through social media often do so to distract themselves from uncomfortable feelings. This method of coping – keeping unwanted thoughts and feelings at bay through distraction – only increases anxiety in the long run.
Instead of avoiding or ignoring anxiety, the solution lies in listening to what anxiety is trying to tell you and getting down to the underlying cause.
What is your perception of anxiety?
Do you still think it is something bad or dangerous that needs to be eradicated?
Or are you now seeing anxiety as a helpful feedback mechanism and ally?
Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a WhatsApp if you would love to learn how to harness the full benefits of anxiety. I will chat with you over an obligation-free discovery call, letting you know how you can begin to utilize anxiety as the evolutionary advantage it truly is.
From my heart to yours,