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Why some anxiety is good, even though it feels bad

Carol Yepes/Getty Images
Carol Yepes/Getty Images

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Over her 20 years as a psychologist, Tracy Dennis-Tiwary noticed something about the way people talked about anxiety.

“Whenever we think of anxiety, we think of the language of dysfunction, despair. So, we have these mindsets that anxiety is actually always a disease, or it’s some sort of a character flaw,” Dennis-Tiwary says.

Anxiety disorders are very real. And can be crippling. But some anxiety is also evolutionarily advantageous.

“It’s preparing us to handle this uncertain future where something bad or good could happen, it prepares us to avert disaster, but also make our hopes into reality,” Dennis-Tiwary adds.

Today, On Point: Why some anxiety is good, even though it feels bad.


Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, professor of psychology and neuroscience. Director of the Emotion Regulation Lab at Hunter College. Chief Science Officer of Wise Therapeutics, a digital health therapeutics company. Author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad) (@tracyadennis)

Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Professor in the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. Author of Permission to Feel. Co-creator of HowWeFeel, an app designed to teach emotion skills. (@marcbrackett)

Also Featured

Dana Chudy, a library assistant in Clinton Township, Michigan.

Lenette Serlo, a mom of four in Davie, Florida.


DANA CHUDY: Probably as far back as I can remember. Kindergarten, maybe. I just remember being worried all the time.

KIMBERLY ATKINS STOHR: This is Dana Chudy. She’s an On Point listener in Clinton Township, Michigan.

CHUDY: Was I going to get in trouble for some little tiny thing? Was that kid next to me actually going to drink the glue as he promised to do? I remember just being terrified to go to gym class to the point where I would quote, forget my gym clothes at home. I would, you know, pretend to not be feeling well. I would do anything I could to get out of gym. I remember crying to my parents because I was so afraid that I was not going to understand how to play baseball. It was terrifying to me.

ATKINS STOHR: That feeling that she wouldn’t get something right, wouldn’t know something, and that something bad would happen became all too familiar to Dana. Today, she recognizes that as anxiety.

CHUDY: You can feel the adrenaline coursing through your body. Every piece of he was on high alert. You’re just in complete fight or flight to deal with the issues that you’re perceiving there to be.

ATKINS STOHR: During college, Dana says that anxiety pushed her to academic success that she might not have otherwise had. But Dana says it’s a stressor she could have done without.

CHUDY: I understand why someone who has not experienced anxiety could say, but look where this got you, because I was successful academically. But the internal struggle that puts you through is not worth it.

ATKINS STOHR: As an adult, Dana was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD, now working as a library assistant in Clinton Township, Michigan. On Point listener Dana Chudy is one of over 40 million adults in America who struggle with an anxiety disorder. But research also finds that anxiety, the emotion, is evolutionarily advantageous and has benefits to help us thrive. So today, that’s what we’ll focus on.

How anxiety can be good, even though it feels bad. And we’re borrowing that phrase from Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. She’s a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Hunter College in New York City. She’s also the author of Future Tense Why Anxiety is Good for You, even Though It Feels Bad. Tracy, welcome to On Point.

TRACY DENNIS-TIWARY: Thank you, Kimberly, It’s wonderful to be with you.

ATKINS STOHR: So I want to start this discussion sort of by defining our terms, because I think a lot of Americans, particularly over the last couple of years, understand what anxiety is, myself included. But I want to differentiate between anxiety the disorder, and anxiety the emotion. And help us do that.

DENNIS-TIWARY: So, first of all, even making that distinction, that anxiety is an emotion instead of a disorder is an important step because the language of anxiety, the language we use every day, is things like, Oh, she has anxiety. Or, Oh, you’re anxious, let’s get rid of that as soon as possible. So it’s really important to say that anxiety is an emotion and it’s a specific type of an emotion. It is an emotion that is comprised of feelings and thoughts that signal that we’re nervous about the uncertain future.

And I think your listener Dana really, you know, expresses some of those kinds of anxieties. It’s we’re sending ourselves into the future. We’re using our amazing ability to imagine what’s coming around the bend. And what we see there is that something bad could happen. But when you’re anxious, what science has shown us is that you also believe that a good outcome is still possible, so you’re not despairing. So that’s the uncertain future that we’re looking at when we’re anxious. And this is quite distinct from fear, because fear is an emotion that gives us the information that we’re facing certain and present danger.

So fear is that there’s a snake about to bite us. And anxiety is the feeling that, oh, when tomorrow I’m going for a walk in the woods, I might encounter a snake. And so while anxiety can feel a lot like fear and, you know, it’s that fight or flight response, anxiety is so much more. Because it’s this information about the uncertain future. And it’s preparing us to navigate that uncertainty by not only fight-flight protective mode, but also making us more focused, making us more persistent, innovative, even hopeful.

ATKINS STOHR: That’s really interesting because as you’re explaining this, I’m thinking of the times that I felt anxiety, that fight or flight instinct that you talk about. In particular … I’m thinking of being in that moment, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it as being an emotional response to thinking about the future. I just want you to talk about that a little bit more. What is it about the future that is specific to this emotion of anxiety?

DENNIS-TIWARY: It’s really that uncertainty. It’s that feeling that, you know, I’m imagining this conversation I’m going to have with a wonderful radio show host, you know, and I’m thinking about this tomorrow. And when you’re anxious, now if I were in despair, I would say, oh, my gosh, I just can’t do this. It’s going to be a disaster. But when I’m anxious, I start to think about, oh, okay, well, what might she ask me? And it might be a really fun conversation and how exciting I get this opportunity. And so on the spectrum of anxiety, and all emotions, are on a spectrum. You have panic, which is at that far end of the kind of danger zone feeling, but you also have excitement.

So on the spectrum, we actually have these positive experiences. And if you actually just swap in the world excited instead of anxious, all of a sudden your mindset about this feeling starts to change and you can start to say, oh, actually anxiety is feeling bad because it’s making me sit up and pay attention, taking time out of my day. To really focus on what I need to plan for and what actions I might need to take and when. When you think about emotion as an evolutionary advantage and by the way, Darwin devoted a third of his theory, when he actually laid out evolutionary theory, he devoted a third of it to emotions. It was his third book called The Expression of Emotions and Man and Animals.

And here he talks about how crucial it is to survival. So I always imagine prehistoric people maybe sitting around, you know, of a fire, maybe they’ve discovered fire by now and they just, you know, escape that sabertooth tiger. And maybe they found some food and they have a full belly. If they didn’t have the ability to use their big prefrontal cortexes, you know, their big brains that humans evolved to have and imagine, oh, maybe when I go and find shelter tonight, I shouldn’t go to that same cave where that sabertooth is … and I’m going to kind of run the ‘what if’ scenarios. It takes energy to do that, precious energy. It needs to grab us. It needs to make us sit up and pay attention and move out of the present and for a moment, project ourselves into the future. And that’s why anxiety has to feel bad to do its job.

ATKINS STOHR: So I want to distinguish anxiety, the emotion from other feelings. You mentioned fear. You distinguished a little bit between anxiety and fear. I think one that’s tougher for people to distinguish between is stress. What’s the difference between anxiety, the emotion and stress?

DENNIS-TIWARY: It’s such a great question because, you know, all of us fall prey to that saying kind of using the words interchangeably. Stress is not an emotion. It’s a calculation. It’s a calculation of, you know, given the demands and maybe the curveballs or opportunities that the world is throwing my way, do I have the internal and personal resources to meet that challenge, to meet those demands? And when your calculation is that the demands exceed your resources, that’s when we experience stress.

The interesting thing about stress, though, is that it can be both, you know, positive and negative. And under that umbrella, we experience all the emotions. So if I’m anticipating my upcoming wedding, I feel stressed about it because there’s a lot of planning to doing. There’s so many things to do, but there’s a lot of joy. Maybe there’s nervousness, maybe there’s frustration. So also emotions live under this umbrella of stress.

ATKINS STOHR: And how does someone distinguish between feeling the emotion of anxiety, particularly at a time, you know, we just came out of a pandemic or looking at economic uncertainty ahead? How do we distinguish from the emotion of anxiety, which, as you’ve explained, we need and can be a positive force from an anxiety disorder?

DENNIS-TIWARY: When we experience anxiety, we might experience it frequently. We might experience it even sometimes quite intensely. And perhaps, you know, maybe over a course of a month there’ll be a lot of anxiety in our lives or even longer. But we will not be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. At least we shouldn’t be unless there’s functional impairment. That is that the way we’re coping with that anxiety is getting in the way of living a full life, of working, of studying, of living, of loving, of doing all these things we need to do.

So, for example, if I’m a person who has some social anxieties where I fear that I’ll be perhaps humiliated in public, I’ll embarrass myself, I won’t be able to rise to the challenge. I could be socially anxious and still, you know, push through and figure out ways to cope and manage quite well. But if I start avoiding going to work, missing deadlines, if I’m a child and I start to refuse to go to school, if I turn down opportunities that are coming my way, cut off from my friends, if I’m using this avoidance as a way of coping with that feeling and it’s starting to get in the way of my life, that’s when we would be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

ATKINS STOHR: How should we be thinking differently about anxiety … knowing the difference between those two things when we feel that emotion inside of us? Should we think about it differently?

DENNIS-TIWARY: I think we need to think about it as an ally that we need to negotiate with because allies don’t just do whatever you want. You have to work with them. Or like that best friend that you never wanted to have. But they always tell you the truth and they’re actually there to help you in the long run. … What that does is that allows us to engage with anxiety and to know that anxiety is a wave. That we can build skills, we can learn to swim, we can learn to surf, we can learn to, you know, the boat set sail on this wave. And the mental health is not the absence of emotional discomfort. It’s the ability to work through that discomfort.

Related Reading

Wall Street Journal: “In Praise of Anxiety” — “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.”

EducationWeek: “‘There’s No Such Thing as Bad Emotions’ and Other Truths Students Need to Know” — “Most people want to be more emotionally intelligent, but how do we do that? I use the acronym RULER to talk about five essential skills. The first R is recognizing emotions in myself and others. That’s paying attention to my physiology, to where my brain is taking me. It’s paying attention to your facial expressions, vocal tone, body language—trying to make meaning out of that.”

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