What is bad anxiety?
Is there such a thing as good anxiety?
If you have anxiety you may think the answer is obvious. Anxiety can curtail your activities out of fear. It can make you afraid to go outside, meet others, or engage in meaningful relationships. It can cause you to doubt yourself, to believe there is something wrong with you, or that you’re failing in some way. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that most people want to get rid of.
If you suffer from anxiety, you’re not alone. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that 1 in 13 people globally suffers from anxiety and that anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental health problem.
Tonnes of celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey and Courtney Kardashian, are honest about the anxiety they regularly deal with.
As you might expect, there’s loads of information out there about anxiety and how to manage it.
Yet only a few people stop to ask if all anxiety is bad. Rare is the voice that asks whether a certain amount of anxiety is a good thing, or whether it’s an inescapable part of being human.
And that’s a shame because not all anxiety is bad.
In fact, you can’t do without it.
Understanding this is critical. It will help you come to terms with your anxiety. It will help you distinguish between anxiety which is unnecessary and unwanted, the “Bad” anxiety, and anxiety that you can’t escape, that you must face bravely and that spurs you on, the “Good” anxiety.
If you struggle with anxiety and blame yourself for this situation, then this difference is crucial to understand. The distinction between the anxiety you need and the anxiety that you don’t is essential and will help you face your anxiety head-on.
Get to Know Your Baseline
“Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” So wrote Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and writer in the early 19th Century.
His point was that anxiety is an inescapable part of life.
Remember your first date, or the first day in school, where you sat in the assembly hall waiting for your name to be called? Or the day you started a new job and had to introduce yourself to everyone?
Who can’t remember a time in their past where they felt a little nervous or afraid?
Life offers all sorts of anxiety-provoking situations, some of them of our choosing — like taking a new course, or marriage — but not all of them. Illness, job loss, and relationship break up are often out of our hands.
And what’s worse?
You never know when misfortune will arise.
So we all live with a baseline of anxiety that’s a normal part of being human. Living in a world where bad things happen is the fate we all suffer.
That’s why it’s normal to be anxious some of the time.
Anxiety keeps us vigilant in a world where things can - and do - occasionally go wrong.
Understand Your Anxiety
In addition to the anxiety that keeps you pumped up and ready for the misfortunes that may befall you, there’s also the anxiety that comes from never having all the information you need to make accurate choices.
You’re always choosing. Think of all the thousands of small and large choices you make each day.
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But here’s the thing: there is no way to be sure how your choices will affect you. Of course, for some choices, like whether the cereal you’ve just made for breakfast is likely to satisfy you, you probably have all the information you need. But for other decisions, like whether you’ll enjoy your walk on an overcast day (will it rain?) you’re taking a chance. For bigger decisions, such as which career you’ll enjoy, or whether your relationship will work out, you just don’t have enough information at the time you make your choice.
Kierkegaard was one of the first to write about this. He called our constant need to make choices the ‘dizziness of freedom’ that comes about when you’re faced with an unknown infinity of possibilities and must somehow be strong and find the courage to make a choice anyhow.
Kierkegaard compared this to standing on an abyss. Each choice faces you with the unknown and there is always the danger of falling in.
Anxiety comes from your underlying awareness that often you just don’t know how things will pan out, and yet you must choose anyway.
This is the dizziness of freedom we must all live with.
Recognise Bad Anxiety
Anxiety is part of being human.
Good anxiety is generalized. It has no specific focus; it is the hum in the background for all your activities. Bad anxiety is excessive and out of proportion to the challenges you’re facing.
Good anxiety comes from the fact that life is uncertain. Things can sometimes go wrong, yet you can never be sure when. Nothing’s ever certain. The ground beneath you is not always as solid as you might like.
In and amongst all this uncertainty you must make choices — yet you can never be sure if they’re right. And once you choose any one option, others are closed to you.
But there’s hope. The anxiety all this generates is manageable.
Anxiety in this sense is part and parcel of a well-lived life.
Far better to face those challenging situations and choices than run away from them.
But if that’s “good anxiety,” what is “bad anxiety”?
Bad anxiety occurs when your anxiety spirals out of control and becomes fixated on something. This anxiety is closely linked with fear. Fear has an object; you are always afraid of something. Bad anxiety is the fear of flying, spiders, or social gatherings. Or the paralysing fear of bad things happening to the people we love.
This is anxiety that is more than the baseline level of anxiety that we all experience. At its worst, it interferes with you living a prosperous happy life. It causes work, family and social difficulties.
It triggers serious physical responses such as heart palpitations, breathlessness and tingling palms. Sometimes you have a full-blown panic attack, where your heart beats so fast you think it might burst.
Anxiety like this disrupts your thoughts, exaggerating fears and causing excessive worry.
This is bad anxiety. This is the anxiety that you need to work to overcome. This is the anxiety that you can overcome.
Get the Help You Need
You want to know what bad anxiety is and how to get rid of it.
You want to separate the anxiety that is normal and just a part of living in an uncertain world with that which is excessive and life-destroying.
You want to be free from the anguish that anxiety causes you — the self-doubt, anger and fear.
And you can.
Today, your anxiety may feel overwhelming and like it will never end, but it’s possible to overcome bad anxiety.
It’s possible to return yourself to the normal baseline level of good anxiety that all of us feel.
As a counsellor trained in mindfulness and other approaches for beating bad anxiety, I can help. Reach out if you need support.
You don’t have to live in fear, holing yourself up at home, afraid to travel, meet your friends, or enter a long-lasting relationship. There’s no need to doubt yourself. You can live calm days full of courage and without fear.
Don’t give up, days free from bad anxiety are just around the corner.