Few emotions have a worse reputation than anxiety. When it catches you, your heart rate increases, your breathing shortens, your vision blurs. You suddenly have the feeling that you are in an unpleasant state, with no way out.
Of all the emotions you can feel, one of the first places among the worst is definitely its.
There are those who can handle it more or less well, there are those who control and dominate it and those who are overwhelmed by it but one thing is certain: everyone has experienced it at least once in their lives. When we talk about anxiety, we all know what we are talking about.
What would you think if we told you that all this bad reputation is not at all deserved and that we should be more grateful to it? That we have gone crazy? We couldn’t blame you because even we didn’t give her much credit when we first heard psychologist Tracy Dennis-Tiwary speak. Then, listening to her carefully, we realized that maybe, you never know, what if? What if it is that we have always mistaken our ally as an enemy?
What is the purpose of anxiety?
We could describe this emotion by the effects it has on your body and mind: quickened pulse, shortness of breath, feeling that you have no escape and that you are overwhelmed by something incomprehensible but fearful.
What anxiety does to us is an ancestral reflex that takes us back to its origins: our ancestors encountered it when they felt threatened by ferocious beasts, when they had to run away, when they had to defend themselves or attack their fellow human beings.
Today we experience on a physical and mental level the same change of state as they did: back then the physical changed trim to flee or hunt and the mind focused on doing one thing, like saving one’s skin. Nowadays we don’t have to hunt or run from ferocious beasts, so we turn that ancestral feeling of danger into stress.
As much as they have evolved, our minds and bodies still have ancient reactions to uncomfortable situations. Well, yes: we are more evolved than our ancestors but not evolved enough to have upgraded our emotional apparatus for a world where you don’t have to hunt for meat but find it in convenient trays at the supermarket. We react as we did millennia ago, although the environmental conditions are completely different.
How is anxiety defined?
Anxiety is the perception of future danger and is closely related to fear, which is instead the reaction to a present danger. Do you want an example? If you are on a trail and see a viper, you experience fear; if you think that on the trail you are going to take tomorrow or in a month you might encounter a viper, then you have anxiety.
So is anxiety just a way to prepare for a dangerous situation? In a way, yes, but try to focus on the whole sentence: anxiety “prepares you,” it does not anticipate fear, that is, it does not make you feel fear. It makes you uncomfortable to prepare, not for the sake of making you sick.
Are you beginning to realize that anxiety doesn’t want to hurt you, in fact?
Why we hate anxiety
The most immediate answer is obvious: we hate and avoid it because it makes us uncomfortable, makes us feel bad.
Instead, the deeper reason is to be found in the relationship we have – by training or by nature – with unpleasant feelings: we no longer know how to interpret them for the purpose they serve (to let us know that we are dissatisfied with something, to prepare us for a future test, etc.) but we just want to stifle them.
Think about how we define the condition of our mind: “mental health.” Don’t you find it has a little too much of a medical connotation? Doesn’t it make you think that when we talk about the mind we are talking about something that is necessarily sick and needs to be fixed?
Today we reject these moods, defining them within a medical context that can then be controlled and fought with drugs or therapies.
Instead, what we should do, according to Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, is to, on the one hand, assess anxiety for what it is (fear of the future projection of something that has not yet happened and may not necessarily happen) and, on the other hand, use it to prepare ourselves to deal with something that may be difficult and exhausting, or worse.
The emphasis is shifted from removing anxiety to using it to prepare for a challenging situation. In this case the most important verb is “to prepare,” and it is not accidental: how do you prepare for a test? Well, you should know better: you train yourself to deal with it and overcome it.
This is why the doctor proposes that it should no longer be called “mental health” but “mental fitness”: thus, to reach this state, one must train resilience and preparedness for anxiety and stressful situations, not try to escape them. Drugs offer you a way out that distances the problem but does not solve it (once the effect is over, the problem is still there) while fortifying the mind allows you to face it with resolve. Or at least with more ability to defend yourself.
Finally, it is important to note that mental health does not mean the absence of negative emotions and feelings but the ability to cope with them. Not surprisingly, we talk about well-being, not the removal of negative thoughts.
One last aid (of anxiety)
There are few certainties in life, but one of them is that the future is not predictable and may hold uncertainties and difficulties for you. It is not certain but probable, very much.
Try to imagine now, after all that has been said so far, what anxiety is really for: not to make you uncomfortable and sick now but rather, to prepare you for a future condition that may be challenging. It makes you predict it (anxiety, remember, is always a projection) and makes you imagine what solutions you might put in place to solve it.
If you didn’t feel anxiety, you would suddenly be confronted with something you hadn’t anticipated, and you would only be able, at that point, to feel tremendous fear. With what result? You would run away, without solving anything.
If, on the other hand, you have been able to use anxiety to prepare yourself, you will not feel fear: you will be dealing with a situation that you at least summarily anticipated, and you will be able to try to resolve it. Most likely by succeeding.
Who will you have to thank at that point? Your abilities, certainly. But also the most unexpected ally: your anxiety.