Feelings of anxiety are not inherently “bad” – they can be helpful in our understanding of ourselves, our relationships, and our general environments. Often when we talk about anxiety we are describing the physical and mental experiences that anxiety encompasses. This can present physically with increased heart rate, tightness of chest, sweaty palms, feeling keyed up or on edge, and having trouble sleeping, amongst other symptoms. The mental symptoms include feeling incredibly worried, having racing thoughts, and having trouble controlling these worries. It is hard to imagine how any of these symptoms could be anything other than bad. Who would want to feel this way? How is it useful to have sleep disturbance and racing thoughts? But evolutionarily speaking anxiety serves an incredible purpose.
Why do we feel anxious?
Anxiety and the bodily responses that encompass it are meant to detect any threats in our environment and deal with those that are found (Bateson, Brilot, & Nettle, 2011). These responses are seen more frequently and at a higher intensity in animals that face higher levels of predation (Bateson, Brilot, & Nettle, 2011). These changes allow those in threat to be more cognizant of possible threats as early as possible.
Difference between typical anxiety and anxiety disorder
So if anxiety can be helpful, how do we distinguish between garden variety feelings of anxiety and an anxiety disorder?
As it currently stands, there are eleven different anxiety disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). While the disorders vary a bit, the diagnostic criterium that appears in each one is “the anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (APA, 2013). Anxiety also often falls within the disorder category when it is out of proportion to the stressor or danger at hand.
If someone experiences feelings of anxiety after a near car accident, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have one of the eleven anxiety disorders in the DSM-5. It just means their body sensed a threat and imminent harm and employed feelings of anxiety as a protective measure, likely to prepare them for any more threats. Conversely, if someone experiences anxiety symptoms whenever they enter a seemingly innocuous space, such as a grocery store, it would likely be in line with one of the diagnosable anxiety disorders. Not all feelings of anxiety come from external situations. Some people experience feelings of anxiety in relational dynamics or when they are having intrapersonal processes. Again, the key marker between disorder and standard feelings is whether it is causing distress and impairment and whether or not it is proportionate to the trigger.
Listening to feelings of anxiety
That said, if you’re experiencing feelings of anxiety that aren’t part of an anxiety disorder, you don’t have to sit and surrender to them either. You can think of your feelings as a messenger. If anxiety exists to alert us about threats, what in your environment or about this person feels threatening? What about this situation doesn’t make you feel safe? What do you need to feel balanced, safe, and secure again?
Given that anxiety serves an evolutionary purpose, it is not a feasible goal to never experience feelings of anxiety again. It would be unhelpful to not be able to feel any anxious symptoms. Without them, it would be hard, if not impossible, for our body and brain to alert us about threats in our environments.
When to get help for anxiety
While typical anxiety has a trigger, is often reasonable, and can even be good for us, anxiety disorders can feel debilitating and out of control. Seeking professional help can provide the tools necessary to work through those feelings so they’re no longer causing distress and/or impairment in day-to-day life and so that they are proportionate to the stressors at hand.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Bateson M, Brilot B, Nettle D. Anxiety: an evolutionary approach. Can J Psychiatry. 2011 Dec;56(12):707-15. doi: 10.1177/070674371105601202. PMID: 22152639.