Liza Summer

Anxiety Isn’t Always A Bad Thing—Here’s How To Tell If It’s Helping Or Hurting You

Since I am a master of anxiety (not just because I have a Master’s in clinical mental health counseling, but because I have my own generalized anxiety diagnosis), I have learned to categorize my anxiety. This helps me identify whether or not my anxiety is ‘normal’ (I don’t like to use that word, but for this one time for the sake of explaining, I’ll define it that way) or if I should be concerned with the anxiety. Not only has this helped me, but I use it very often with my own therapy clients!

To begin, good anxiety can be considered as the feeling one gets when waiting on a grade from a test. That feeling when you see the teacher handing out the grades, wondering if the way the teacher bends the paper while giving the test back to each student has any significance, your heart racing, sweat building up in your palms. 

Or we can focus on the anxiety one feels when leaning back in a chair. Once that chair leans back a little too far for comfort you can feel your heart and/or stomach sink while you quickly ground all four legs to the ground. What these two examples have in common is, simply enough, although it induces anxiety, it’s necessary anxiety.  

I contemplated two words for describing ‘good anxiety’—necessary and essential. I found using the word necessary was more applicable because, upon dissecting the definition of the two, if it were essential anxiety that means the act cannot be done with anxiety. That is false. Thus, necessary fits more, as anxiety is essential for living, but only necessary in order to alert danger.

Bringing back our example, those who want to do well in school and go further with their education will feel ‘good anxiety’ when waiting for their test grades because they are worried they may not do well, which is reasonable. Likewise, when you lean too far back in your chair, your heart and stomach sink because you truly were in danger of falling over, thus your body did what it is supposed to do. When your body gives you anxiety due to a necessary factor, then you can allow it to happen (while still coping with it to lessen and not enhance the anxiety).   

That is where ‘bad anxiety’ comes in. Using the same examples, if someone often has great grades, that means their fear of failing should be less than others, as their average is higher, meaning perfectionism is not good anxiety, it is bad. Unless, for a fact, one bad grade can derail this person’s future, their anxiety about a test should be minimal due to the fact that this one grade cannot hurt them. If they experienced the same anxiety as someone else with worse grades, then although it’s the same situation, it’s still considered ‘good anxiety’ for one (the one who may not have perfect grades) and ‘bad anxiety’ for the other (the one who feels they need to be perfect). 

When leaning too far back in a chair, we could assume everyone has ‘good anxiety’ with that; however, it can still range. Let’s say someone actually did fall back in a chair and hurt themselves. Now, whenever they are in a chair, the second they feel two legs leave the ground, they have extreme anxiety since their body remembers the event where they hurt themselves prior. This can be considered ‘bad anxiety’ because simply fooling around in a chair can now elicit anxiety that then can impair the person. 

What do I mean by impairing? If that person has ‘bad anxiety’ when sitting/rocking in a chair, that anxiety can cause irritability, memory loss, and sensory overload—the list can go on. Impairment in the latter example would be giving up on school in general because you often have anxiety with any grade less than a 95. 

To better explain, here are a few more examples. Unless you work for the airlines, I don’t know many people who aren’t anxious when going on a plane. Whether it’s the tight space, the crowd of people, or being thousands of feet in the air in a magical flying machine, I think most people agree they feel anxious in planes. Despite these reasonable anxieties, we can still consider anxiety towards planes as ‘good anxiety’, since we still choose to use them as transportation. We may have some stomach aches and racing hearts, but whatever gets us to Hawaii, right? Those who are too scared of flying and refuse to go on a plane don’t have good anxiety when it comes to planes, because, you guessed it, it impairs them. Maybe it’s not the most important thing ever to go on a plane, but we can’t deny that it still damages the goal. 

Similarly, most people get anxious when they have to make a decision. One issue with living in a first-world country such as America is that there are too many options, which is a leading cause of heightened anxiety in the USA. When looking through the scope of good anxiety, we can rationalize that decision-making can often make us anxious (sweating, impatience, tendency to overthink, etc.). Although there are coping skills that should be used in these times, it can still be considered good anxiety, as long as it, again, does not impair you. Sometimes, when a decision is too much, we get so anxious we sabotage ourselves and default to no decision. 

This leads us to the need to recognize when ‘good anxiety’ turns into ‘bad anxiety’.  With the grade example, it’s imperative to be aware when the ‘good anxiety’ of feeling a bit sweaty before getting your test grades turns into ‘bad anxiety’ if the anxiety symptoms don’t alleviate after the situation and/or worsen. Normally, after we get the grade, whether good or bad, the anxiety goes away because the event is over. Others can turn that good anxiety into bad by fixating on the event, working themselves up with fears, and partaking in negative self-talk (i.e “I suck I don’t know why I even try”). 

How do we become aware of this? Awareness happens when you are willing to ask yourself the question “Am I handling this the best way I could?” If in that moment of anxiety, we can answer that we are not entertaining paranoid thoughts (or what we can call cognitive distortions) but are working with the facts, then we have the recipe for awareness.