Anxiety Has a Purpose; Know It and Beat Anxiety
If asked what purpose anxiety has in their lives, people's answers might range from "absolutely nothing" to "torturing me and ruining my life." Admittedly, it often feels like anxiety exists for no other reason than to torment us. Further, if we try to find a point to our anxiety, we frequently come up with nothing. Believe it or not, though, anxiety frequently does have a purpose. Discovering it can help you beat anxiety.
Beyond Causes, Anxiety Has a Purpose
We humans are sophisticated creatures with complex brains. Our brains are scientific and methodical and, from the most primitive part to the most advanced, function with a purpose: to keep us alive.
Sometimes, though, the brain's methods leave something to be desired. The brain is susceptible to injury and illness, and the brain is also, well, human. Due to the brain's human nature, it's subject to faulty thinking and imperfect emotions. Sometimes, the brain's way of preserving us is to go into anxiety overdrive (Anxiety: It's in Your Head [Your Brain]!).
Anxiety has numerous causes involving thoughts, feelings, learned behaviors, past events, chemical imbalances, and more. Yes, anxiety has multiple causes, but once it exists, what is anxiety's purpose? Determining the purpose of your anxiety will allow you to beat anxiety by addressing that purpose.
Four Common Purposes of Anxiety
Sometimes the brain becomes anxious. When anxiety sticks around, it's frequently for a reason. Among the purposes of anxiety, these four are common:
Protection. A function of anxiety is to protect us from harm. If we're a bit worried and thus on alert, vigilant for people or places that might hurt us, we stay safe. Anxiety's role in protecting us is a good one. When we become hypervigilant and fearful, though, isolating ourselves from the world to avoid danger, anxiety's purpose of protection has gone too far.
Motivation. Wanting to do well on something important to you. These are great qualities. Anxiety is at work here, helping us sustain that drive for success by adding a splash of worry and fear just enough to keep us on our toes. However, when drive becomes intense performance anxiety or perfectionism, anxiety has gone too far.
Growth and Development: Having a degree of anxiety can help spur personal growth. Anxiety about what's going on in our current life and worrying a bit about the future can help propel us out of our comfort zone. Anxiety can help us discover what we want to change, and then give us the motivation to do it. Sometimes, though, anxiety takes root and makes us stuck in rumination and worry. When that happens, anxiety has gone too far.
Love and Belonging. Love and belonging are among the basic human needs. Anxiety can help us meet them by helping us stay connected to others. Fearing loneliness, worrying about harm coming to someone we love motivate us to care and connect. Yet this type of anxiety, like the others, can spiral out of control and interfere in our relationships and functioning. When this happens, anxiety has gone too far.
Know Anxiety's Purpose, Beat Anxiety
When you recognize the purpose of your anxiety, you can reduce anxiety by addressing that purpose. Here's how:
Tune into your anxiety. Notice when you experience it.
Listen to it. What, specifically, is it telling you? What else is going on? What are you thinking and feeling?
Analyze the purpose. Why do think you feel anxious? What is anxiety's function right now?
Rate the purpose. Is anxiety really valid in the situation? If so, is your anxiety going too far? How necessary is your anxiety right now?
When you begin to acknowledge that anxiety does have a purpose, you can step back and determine if the purpose is valid or if anxiety is going too far. Then, work on your thoughts about what is making you anxious. Gradually, you'll teach your brain that there's no need to go into anxiety overdrive (Five Solution-Focused Ways to Beat Anxiety).
Let's connect. I blog here. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest. My mental health novels, including one about severe anxiety, are here.
Peterson, T. (2016, June 9). Anxiety Has a Purpose; Know It and Beat Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, June 4 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2016/06/anxiety-has-a-purpose-know-it-and-beat-anxiety
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS
Hi Tonya, I can’t believe I’ve not seen and read this before! I’m grateful that The HealthyPlace re-posts these as so many others.
You’ve hit on every subject of the causes of my anxieties. All 4 topics. I know the causes, I know I need to confront them when I’m feeling them in such paralyzing ways. Yet I can’t conquer them. MDD is also a HUGE factor, as is being disabled due to MDD since 2006. Then along came severe anxiety as my marriage to a covert narcissist, was finally learned through some great professionals. A psychiatrist who listened to find the root of my problems and an equally fabulous counselor who I considered a friend we became so I’m tune with each other. Each of them met my now ex spouse when he insisted on going to a few of my appts. THOSE caused huge turning points in starting to understand what I’d been going through. Each of them separately diagnosed my ex by proxy, as a very malignant manipulative covert narcissist! (To readers who may not know what I mean “by proxy”, it’s observing someone who’s not seeking treatment and by pure observation and dialogue they were able to clearly see what he was/is). He believed he ran those sessions and told them each what my problems were and what they should be doing about it. (He didn’t want me seeing anyone to begin with), and constantly condemned me and them for not treating me correctly. Ugh ? that was the beginning of my education in narcissistic abuse, gaslighting, etc. He had every trait. My mother also has many maternal traits as well as being overly controlling. I’ve since divorced that spouse in the divorce from hell that earned me the diagnosis of C-PTSD. What should have been a simple divorce was anything but. The court system caused me much grief and trauma as well. This has been 4 years divorced, 6 years total of separation/divorce with NO CONTACT NO REACTION to any of his still manipulative things he does all under the radar. I’ve isolated myself to the point I don’t leave the house. Depression is so thick around me it’s suffocating most days, AND then there’s all these different types of anxieties nobody gets. I’ve lost all friends and family, mostly my grown daughter from a first marriage who my now ex, (her ex step dad)successfully brainwashed into believing I’m the horrible evil person he in fact is. Losing her and my three young granddaughters has been the biggest devastation and heartbreak of all. He purposely set out to do that knowing she was my rock. He hated her. I kept that from her not to hurt her and it ended up in my face. I was once very respected and liked in my community and from my work. That’s no longer so. He publicly humiliated me many times, (but never in front of any family or friends. “The smear campaign” they’re also known for. I fear that loneliness is going to be what eventually makes me snap. I have my dog who I credit for my existence. Without her and her unconditional love there is no one else. I never in my life imagined this Ifot myself. I was once very vibrant and outgoing and that was squashed by my ex’s unfounded jealousy. Another trait that cheaters do to take the attention off of themselves. I didn’t mention that I loved this man like no one else before. That’s still hard to understand how I loved and was married 18 years to someone who’s lies were so believable I never doubted him or his fidelity. Sad when you learn they’ve never been capable of love for anyone but themselves. The day I told him to get out, with proof that fell into my hands of cheating he denied it all with rivers of tears. Tears that were another perfect performance, but I couldn’t deny the undeniable and insisted he leave. The very next morning when I got up and he’d slept on the couch that night, he’d already been up and a totally different man. I knew at that point I’d become his personal #1 enemy. I’ve been that ever since, and yet he’s still able to keep his enablers in check. I’ve dropped out of social media long ago and became ad private as you can be. Speaking to no one we once knew together including my family and old friends. No one, but no one understands what living and what kind of long term effects these emotional vampires have on you. I know only all too well.
Thank you for your time and this article. It explained all my sources of anxiety petfectjy. I am in a constant struggle to fight them and gain control
I am so sorry to hear of your terrible ordeal. I won't tell you what you already know about narcissists and their toxicity and abuse! I'll simply say that your reactions are very normal in this situation. You are right, too, that it is very hard to swing back into your community. It will likely bee hard to believe this at first, buy your "former" friends and connections won't forever believe this guy's lies and manipulations. Once they start interacting with you again, they will recognize you -- the real you and welcome you back. Sometimes after people have been isolated because of an abusive relationship and its smear campaign), they find it very hard to just jump back in on a large scale, but they have success reaching out and contacting just one person, inviting her/him over or suggesting another type of meeting. Other people are intimidated by that but decide to try a support group in their community. Try NAMI or DBSA if they exist in your community or even check MeetUp. Or some people start by going for short walks to get used to getting out. Having a dog helps with this! You can work up to a park or dog park. Take small and persistent steps to get back into the life you had and can have again!
Mind if I ask what sources for this article are? Sounds like it would make interesting reading.
For this article, I drew on William Glasser's Choice Theory/Reality Therapy, Gestalt theory, principles and theories of human growth and development, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and a strong mix of ideas and techniques I have found to be useful personally and professionally. There are so many therapeutic approaches, and I love drawing on them to put them to practical use. It is definitely interesting!
I like this article.. but sometimes is so hard to find an actual purpose of our anxiety. How can we look at it and see it clearly?
You are so right -- it can be hard to find an actual purpose for our anxiety. Sometimes, anxiety has a purpose, a function, and when we uncover it, we can address it to reduce anxiety. Other times, anxiety is vague but has a purpose related to our very existence. And still other times, anxiety seems to have no purpose at all (or if it has one, it's very obscure and probably not worth investigating). The fact that anxiety won't cooperate and just fit into a box is one of the many things that makes it so difficult to live with and deal with. The below links take you to other articles I've written that address your very question. I'm not sure they'll provide a definitive answer, because there really isn't a definitive answer! But maybe they'll lead to different, helpful thoughts.
Existential Anxiety, Stress, and Meaning-Making in Your Life -- http://bit.ly/1rqaNou
When Anxiety Strikes without a Cause -- http://bit.ly/1twqa0S