And How to Tell the Difference

A certain amount of anxiety is useful – even indispensable.  If you understand that it is a signal of impending danger, you can grasp its vital importance.  When is danger ever entirely absent?

So, if you are facing a big decision like buying a house or a car, or if you are choosing an investment, it makes sense to expect some anxiety, some insecure, stressful moments.  It can be helpful, in fact, to alert your mind to the risk and provide the extra mental charge to think through your choices.

Getting rid of all traces of anxiety would be like successfully dismantling your house’s security system.  Yes, things are quieter and more relaxed, but you wont know you are in trouble until it’s too late.

But, then, there can be too much anxiety.  Your mind can be overwhelmed, unable to think.  We sometimes call this “panic,” and it means that all we want to do is escape.  The problem is that if the signal comes from inside, from something you have not adequately considered, there is no place to flee to.  Moreover, the mind in panic is not able to think very well.

Then there are chronic conditions, anxieties that seldom fade.  The underlying reason may be the fear of separation or abandonment by someone you feel you need, or some worry about being attacked, a worry often left over from an earlier stage of life.  As a therapist, my job is often to help identify the source of the old fear, and offer some new experiences that can counter that powerful memory.

But some people can’t give it up.  An article in Newsweek, quotes the psychiatrist Harris Stratyner at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York:  “Some people get addicted to feeling anxious because that’s the state that they’ve always known. If they feel a sense of calm, they get bored; they feel empty inside. They want to feel anxious.” (See, “High on Anxiety.”)

Paradoxically, for them, the absence of anxiety becomes a signal itself that something is wrong.  I once had a patient who worried that he needed his anxiety to cope with his job.  Without the heightened alertness and extra energy that his anxiety provided, he felt more vulnerable, unsure he could perform at the level required by his company.

What is the lesson in this?

Friends who tell us not to worry are actually doing us a disservice.  More useful is to seriously question what there is to worry about.  What aspect of the choice has not been fully considered?  What risk have you not been sufficiently mindful of?

It’s never a bad idea to do an inventory of your typical worries, to get a sense of where you are on the spectrum, or what are the particular situations that make you anxious.  You may not always need professional  help to deal with it, but it can help to be more familiar with your internal states and more mindful of what they might be trying to tell you.