The Upside of Anxiety

anxiety

Anxiety isn’t all bad; there is an upside to anxiety. Anxiety can be viewed to have a functional use. It is not arising out of nothing for no purpose. Anxiety is a kind of low-grade fear; an apprehension. It is a form of caution. It is an awareness of possible threat, of potential danger. This wariness of our environment goes way back and may, in fact, be at least in part, responsible for our survival. The issue with anxiety is not so much about having it as it is about having it in a particular context, a specific setting, a time and a place. In some settings, anxiety would be a sign of natural intelligence; in other settings a symptom of cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions are those faulty chains of logic from which we build meanings about our experience. For example, if you were to see a coiled up rope but view it as a snake, you would be anxious, maybe even in panic. If in fact, it were a snake, the anxiety would be intelligent because historically, some snakes are a threat to health and well-being, they are dangerous. But, some snakes are not. One form of cognitive distortion is called ‘overgeneralization’ in which all snakes are interpreted as being dangerous. Another cognitive distortion is ‘illusion’ in which the perception is mis-interpreted, ie, we give it a false meaning. To see the coiled up rope as a snake is an illusion. A mis-interpretation of raw sensory data. But, the mind responds to the interpretation of sensory data, not the sensations themselves.

Anxiety arises from a perceived threat. That interpretation of that perception may be accurate, or it may be inaccurate. That perceived threat, whether factual or fabricated, may also depend upon context, ie, place, time, situation. Anxiety may arise when with certain people, but not with others, at certain places, but not at others. Anxiety becomes panic when this perceived threat is accompanied by further cognitive distortions of extreme danger such as ‘I’m going to die’ or ‘I’m going to fail.’ Of course, ‘dying’ and ‘failing’ must be associated with meanings which are extra-ordinarily frightful. So, a person who finds themselves in a situation which is perceived to be a significant threat, is rightly going to feel anxious. That anxiety is generally dissipated from the action which ensues from a threat, often fight or flight. But, if there is nothing to fight, and nowhere to run, that psychological, and biological, energy we call ‘anxiety’ tends to remain and run in circles.

Anxiety needs to be approached as having a functional role in our lives. We need to be wary, a bit cautious, somewhat skeptical. Interestingly, the phrase ‘be aware’ is just about identical to ‘beware.’ If we can be aware, and a bit beware, our critical thinking is employed and we make distinctions between factual and fabricated threats or dangers. We can begin to see that some of our anxieties are arising from memories, or imaginations, which are not realistic; some are far-fetched and outlandish, some are projections of our own subconscious insecurities and totally unfounded beliefs. We can become frightened of just about anything or anybody. We can become paranoid. Or, we can look at the object of our anxieties and question it, seek evidence of its validity, factuality or accuracy. Going way back, this was a rather spontaneous survival instinct. But, in today’s world of mass advertising, industrialized education and a proclivity towards emotionalism, there can be dozens of perceived threats to our sense of self, including our often overly conditioned beliefs, imprinted upon us from a very early age, by a culture and society in which conflict is all too common.

Certainly, conflict can be anxiety producing. But, it doesn’t have to be. Conflict need not be viewed as a threat or a dangerous situation, though it certainly can be. A person who knows how to interact well with conflict will be far less anxious about it than somebody who believes it is the worst thing in the world. But, what if there is no real conflict? What if the conflict is a fabrication of the mind? What if the threat or danger doesn’t really exist? There is no snake, its just a rope. Then, there would be no functional purpose of the anxiety, and there would be no anxiety.

If you are having experiences of anxiety, it is in your interest to examine the validity, accuracy and evidence of exactly how you are interpreting your experience, either within your environment, or within your mind. Are these experiences, which are being interpreted as dangerous, whether objective or subjective, a genuine, authentic threat? Once the factuality is determined, appropriate action can be taken, and then the anxiety will subside. Or, perhaps it will be discovered that there is no real threat, there is no real danger, and there is, then, no anxiety.

Look around. Look inside. Is there a real and immediate threat or danger? If so, do something about it. The anxiety is there to prompt you towards action which will increase your safety, and thereby free you from the anxiety. If there is no real or immediate threat or danger, the anxiety is based on illusion, and you can choose to dis-illusion yourself, and be freed from your anxiety.

for additional posts about anxiety, view A Philosophical Antidote for Anxiety and Dialing Down Anxiety


 

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