Wall Street Journal Essay: In Praise of Anxiety, by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary (Hunter College; Author, Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad) (2022)):
Anxiety can be used to create a deeper sense of personal fulfillment by striving toward excellence and savoring having a purpose in your life.
Nobody likes to feel anxious. Anxiety is among the most pervasive and reviled of human emotions. An entire industry has sprung up to aid us in eradicating it, from self-help books and holistic remedies to pharmaceuticals and cutting-edge cognitive behavioral therapy. Yet we are an ever more profoundly anxious society. Epidemiological studies show that over 100 million people in the U.S. will suffer from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Rates, especially among the young, have been rising for the past decade. Our efforts to contain anxiety aren’t working.
As a clinical psychologist and neuroscience researcher, I have devoted the past 20 years to understanding difficult emotions like anxiety, and I believe that we mental health professionals have made a terrible mistake. We’ve convinced people that anxiety is a dangerous affliction and that the solution is to eliminate it, as we do with other diseases. But feeling anxious isn’t the problem. The problem is that we don’t understand how to respond constructively to anxiety. That’s why it’s increasingly hard to know how to feel good.
This “bad” feeling isn’t a malfunction or failure of mental health. It’s a triumph of human evolution, a response that emerged along with one of our greatest attributes: the ability to think about the uncertain future and prepare for it. Anxiety places us in the “future tense” (pun intended)—a state in which we are motivated not only to survive but to thrive, by being more persistent, hopeful and innovative.
It was the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, and his intellectual heirs, such as psychologists Nico Frijda and Joseph Campos, who saw that unpleasant emotions like anxiety confer a profound evolutionary advantage. Emotions provide key information about our well-being and prepare us to act. Fear, for example, signals that you may be in danger—from a predator, bully or speeding car—and readies your body and mind to fight or take flight.
Anxiety, by contrast, has nothing to do with present threats. Instead, it turns you into a mental time traveler, drawing your attention to what lies ahead. Will you succeed or fail in that interview for a job you desperately want? Anxiety prompts your mind and body into action. Your worries impel you to prepare meticulously for the interview, while your heart races and pumps blood to your brain so that you stay sharp and focused, primed to pursue your goals. ...
Over the past decade, research has also shown something that many scientists didn’t expect: higher levels of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone, when we’re anxious. We have long known that dopamine spikes when an experience is pleasurable and also in anticipation of such rewards, activating brain areas that motivate and prepare us. The fact that anxiety also boosts dopamine levels points to its role in making positive possibilities into reality. ...
Many of us feel overwhelmed by chronic anxiety and don’t see any benefit from it. We have come to believe that the best way to cope is to treat anxiety like Covid-19 or cancer by trying to eradicate it. But treating anxiety like a disease is a recipe for its spiraling out of control; it prevents us from distinguishing between ordinary anxiety and anxiety disorders, which occur when our ways of coping with anxiety serve to amplify it in ways that are out of proportion to the situation and keep us from functioning in our professional and personal lives. When we say anxiety is a public health crisis, what we really mean is that the way we cope with anxiety is a public health crisis. ...
[T]here are many ways to use anxiety to create a deeper sense of personal fulfillment. Beginning in 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running and most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever conducted, asked a fundamental question: What leads to a healthy and happy life? Following over 1,300 people from all walks of life over decades, the study has found that one of the best predictors—better than social class, IQ and genetic factors—is having a sense of purpose.
A sense of purpose doesn’t mean some grand vision or a burning life mission. Purpose refers to the values and priorities that make us who we are and give our life meaning. Research by Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues at Stanford shows that when people take time to express the purposes they hold dear and to contemplate why—whether it’s relationships, skills or even humor—their mood lifts, concentration and learning improve, relationships are more fulfilling, and physical health even gets a boost. A study published in 2014 in the Annual Review of Psychology by Dr. Cohen and colleagues showed that these benefits can persist for months or even years.
That’s why it’s crucial to channel the benefits of anxiety, like persistence and hope, toward purpose. The Canadian psychologist Patrick Gaudreau coined the term “excellencist” for people who strive toward excellence and savor having a purpose. They experience higher levels of anxiety than their less striving counterparts but don’t suffer the burdens of perfectionism—the relentless pursuit of flawlessness that leads to high rates of burnout.
In a pair of studies published in 2022 in the British Journal of Psychology, Dr. Gaudreau, Jean-Christophe Goulet-Pelletier and colleagues assessed divergent thinking, a key indicator of creativity, in hundreds of young adults by asking them to do such things as using common objects in novel ways. People who tended to pursue excellence over perfection in these exercises made mistakes, but they came up with more—and more original—answers. Thomas Edison wrote, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He was an excellencist, a master of turning anxiety over his failures into purpose.
Today we too often treat anxiety as a malfunction to repair, but anxiety doesn’t need fixing. What needs fixing is our disease model of dealing with it, which is meant to increase stability and destigmatize psychological struggle but is not succeeding and may even be causing harm. Once we rescue anxiety from this mindset, we’ll be in a better position to rescue ourselves.