Why and when Anxiety is Helpful?

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Sometimes anxiety is helpful!

I’m a big fan of trying to see things clearly. Especially when we are dealing with difficulties or challenges in our lives. It’s great to stand back, take a broader view and see how things look from there. In this post about Anxiety, I want to look at whether it’s always the problem or personal flaw that we think it is.

Before I jump into this, I need to put things into context… when talking about how Mindfulness can help anxiety, we are not really looking to overcome or suppress the anxiety.  It’s more that we are trying to see the anxiety clearly and to live full vibrant lives, even with anxiety.

So, if you, or someone you really care about is working towards being able to be with anxiety, to having a healthier relationship with anxiety, the starting place is to understand anxiety.  And that begins with asking, “Why is this anxiety here?”. Like, why as humans did we evolve to have this particular emotion?

We tend to think of anxiety as though it’s a really negative thing. But there’s actually a reason that it’s here. Anxiety keeps us alert to danger.  And while that kind of alertness might be a little too sensitive or more sensitive than is helpful, it’s actually beneficial that we have this alertness. 

Anxiety is helpful because it is all about trying to stay safe.

I think it’s worth considering times when anxiety has been helpful in our lives.  Let me give you an example.

Let’s imagine that you’re moving into a house. And as you’re bringing in all your stuff, you just consider what would happen if there was a fire in this house?  So that’s alertness, that’s the mind trying to protect you, and it will produce some anxiety. 

You imagine that there could be a fire.  And then what might that prompt? Well, it might help you look and think, well if there’s a fire, how do I get out?  Or maybe, how do I get the kids out? Or you might think “I better check if there’s a fire alarm, or a fire blanket, or a fire extinguisher, all of those…

So, you can see that anxiety, this anticipation of future events, and even being worried about them can be incredibly helpful. It’ll make us get up and get a fire alarm, or check that the batteries are working in the fire alarm and that everything’s okay, or have a plan of how to get out. 

In fact, in this case, you could say that anxiety could save your life. So, this is one example of how anxiety is helpfull. And I’m sure you can think of cases in your life (maybe not as dramatic as that)  where you are anxious about something.  And where that helps you to become really prepared for it.  For me I get anxious speaking in public… and that motivates me to be well prepared and to practice beforehand.

Anxiety is important.  So, it’s totally fine that there’s some anxiety. And it makes sense for us to even feel some gratitude towards it. 

At the same time we may want to look at how sensitive we are and at how appropriate the anxiety is. With Mindfulness practice we can become able to recognize the times when anxiety is not so helpful.  The times when it’s going on too long, or when we are overthinking the threat.

Mindfulness can be beneficial because it can bring us back to the present moment.  With Mindfulness, we come back to the present moment, and we come back to the body. From that place, we get to see things more clearly and to have more perspective.  It takes time to develop this ability… but it can be done.

In a future post I’ll share more about using Mindfulness with anxiety.

Until next time…


P.S. If you haven’t read it already, you may be interested in this previous post about how Fear is different from Anxiety.

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Keith Horan

Keith Horan

Keith has been teaching Mindfulness for over 20 years in the West of Ireland where he lives with his wife and three children.
He is trained both in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and in the practices of Modern Secular Mindfulness. He has an MSc in Mindfulness-based Approaches from Bangor University in North Wales.
Keith teaches in a gentle and encouraging way and helps people to find balance and more self-acceptance in their lives.

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