Once, as an intern, a veteran reporter told me that if I were ever asked the classic “What do you think makes a good journalist?” question in a job interview, there was only one correct answer: paranoia.
I confess to being a little perplexed at the time, but 10 years later, I understand. I wasn’t being encouraged to go around imagining everyone was after me. Instead, I was being reminded of the journalist’s responsibility to publish accurate and fair information. It was a warning against complacency. A nudge, if you like, to hold back some good old-fashioned anxiety.
He need not have worried too much about me: I am quite familiar with the pulse-quickening and breath-shortening charms of anxiety, which extend to my work. But he was also exploring an idea that a growing body of research points to: anxiety is not something we can or even should always try to totally eradicate and that, in fact, we need a little bit of it to perform well and even to help. we lead happy and fulfilling lives.
Of course, it must be said that beyond a certain point, anxiety can become debilitating, and clinical intervention is needed to deal with severe anxiety disorders. But we seem to live in a society that is increasingly concerned about the very existence of anxiety.
It was the theme of last week’s Mental Health Awareness Week, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. On the foundation’s ‘anxiety statistics’ page, we are told that in 2022-2023, 37% of women and 30% of men in Britain reported high levels of anxiety, up from 22% and 18% respectively of 2012 to 2015 — an increase often attributed to increased use of social media, as well as concerns about external threats from climate change, AI and pandemics. Above the stats is a disclaimer: “This content mentions anxiety, which some people may find triggering.”
But what if part of the problem is that we’re thinking about anxiety the wrong way? A study published in the journal Emotion, a peer-reviewed journal in March found that judging emotions as positive or negative can have crucial implications for our well-being.
“Meta-anxiety – anxiety about anxiety – is exactly what is tearing us apart,” Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, clinical psychologist and author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even If It Feels Bad), tell me. “This is why we are having this mental health crisis right now. We are talking about this incorrectly.”
Dennis-Tiwary says that instead of trying to avoid anxiety, we should face it to develop skills and emotional resilience that help us manage it. Furthermore, by framing it negatively, we miss out on the more positive traits it can bring: vigilance, focus, motivation, and a burst of energy that can help us perform at our best.
If we don’t always frame it as negative, we can experience what some neuroscientists call “good anxiety”. “Good anxiety is situational, time-limited, and highly motivating,” Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Entrepreneur: Turn Your Biggest Fears Into Your Leadership Superpower, tell me. “It’s the anxiety we need to do great things, and often the anxiety we feel because we care, because we’re emotionally invested in the outcome, because we want to be great. Because we are too scared, let’s go ahead.
That’s all well and good, you might think, but given how terribly awful anxiety can feel, how can we tap into the “good” variety when we’re in the grip of its horror? One way is to respond physiologically: doing breathing exercises that let us know we’re safe, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, or engaging in physical activity, which releases endorphins and serotonin.
But another technique is something Harvard Business School psychologist Alison Wood Brooks called “anxiety reappraisal.” When we feel anxious, our bodies and brains are in a state of heightened arousal and alertness that is similar to – and sometimes indistinguishable from – arousal. Our heartbeat accelerates, adrenaline rises and we prepare for action. Brooks’ research suggests that reframing anxiety with simple tweaks — like saying “I’m feeling excited” instead of “I’m feeling anxious” — can be surprisingly effective.
Of course, when anxiety reaches a point where it is difficult to cope with daily life, these techniques are unlikely to be enough. But if we experience it on a more moderate level, we must try to see it for what it is: a normal, even healthy human emotion on which our very survival as a species depends. If you’re never anxious, you’re probably not alive.