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Anxiety is a double-edged sword: The 3 benefits of situational anxiety

People often classify anxiety as a negative emotion. Often, it’s characterized by intense fear and worry, manifesting in sweaty palms, agitation, fatigue and muscle tenseness. Indeed, in excessive amounts, it gets in the way of even the most basic daily activities. In the U.S. alone, anxiety disorders affects 40 million adults, becoming the most common mental illness in the country.

But anxiety can be helpful, especially when it ensures a person’s survival every day. This is called situational anxiety. It plays a crucial part in decision-making and other daily activities, like meeting deadlines, driving and taking care of the kids. It is an essential part of the human psyche, which can prove beneficial in regulation.

Here are some of the benefits of anxiety:

1. Anxiety is an ingrained warning system

It’s normal to feel anxious. In fact, it is the appropriate response when facing a potential threat to a person’s safety. This is because anxiety is closely linked to cortisol.

Cortisol is a stimulant, which helps provide energy to the body in crisis situations. While continuously elevated levels of cortisol can be detrimental to a person’s health, it does not change how the hormone is important to ensure a person’s survival.

When a threat appears, cortisol levels rise along with anxious thoughts. Being anxious is an indicator that something is wrong, making the person more vigilant. It helps the person attend to any potential threats to avoid further danger.

For example, a pedestrian may feel anxious as he or she spots darkening clouds, which signals rain. This makes him or her walk faster to avoid getting wet. This can apply to countless other scenarios. (Related: Calm your anxiety and stress with these 10 natural herbs.)

2. Anxiety motivates and boosts performance

Feeling anxious becomes advantageous in some situations. For example, when a person is preparing for a test, anxiety helps motivate the person to prepare. Consequently, this boosts the person’s performance, simply because he or she put in more effort into it.

While earlier studies on anxiety stated its negative effects on concentration and memory, more recent studies revealed that there are other factors to consider. The main difference between anxiety as an obstacle and as a motivation is how the person intends to use those anxious feelings.

In a three-part study published in the Journal of Individual Differences, researchers surveyed 194 German adults, 159 undergraduate students in Poland and 270 journalists in Germany. They found that participants who had higher anxiety motivation reported better grades and higher job satisfaction. This was especially true among those who were clear on how they used anxiety to fuel motivation.

Among athletes, anxiety can help boost their performance on the field. When they feel anxious, the sympathetic nervous system activates and signals the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. This provides them with a strength boost and increases their alertness.

3. Anxiety helps promote empathy

Scientists have ruminated for some time the connection between anxiety and empathy. It is observed that people who experienced distress and anxious feelings become more empathetic toward others who were going through the same. Due to a shared experience, the person is more likely to respond kindly and with understanding to the other person.

A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found an indirect relationship between anxiety and empathy. The researchers focused on three specific subjects: empathy, worry and rumination and anxiety. Simply put, people who are empathic may worry more about others, thus experiencing anxiety. Conversely, those who experience anxiety may have an increased concern for others.

At this point, it’s clear that aside from cognitive and physical benefits, anxiety offers emotional and psychological benefits as well. With proper management, anxiety becomes an advantage, not an obstacle, to having a safe and fulfilling life with others.

Learn more about the proper care and management for mental health problems at

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