What if, instead of fuelling sleepless nights, anxious thoughts and nervous energy could somehow be harnessed for good?
It sounds crazy, but there actually is a silver lining to a little bit of anxiety.
To be abundantly clear, we’re not talking about anxiety disorders, which are so all-consuming they interfere with daily life and may even require medical treatment.
We’re talking about a little nervousness, a little edge. We’re talking about the kind of anxiety where you can read a list of "27 Tweets About Anxiety That Will Make You Laugh Then Cry", recognise yourself in every single one, but still shrug them off with a laugh.
If that sums you up, you’ve got at least these three reasons to embrace your anxious side.
ANXIOUS PEOPLE ARE GREAT PROBLEM SOLVERS
Usually, running through that long list of everything that could go wrong with tomorrow’s job interview/tennis match/annual review does little more than make your palms sweaty and your heart race.
And although you’re probably tough on yourself for this kind of outlook, mentally priming yourself for the worst might actually pay off in some situations.
In a recent study of law school grads waiting to find out how they fared on the California bar exam, researchers found that those who were anxious about the worst-case scenario – in this case, failing the test – “responded more productively to bad news and more joyfully to good news, as compared with participants who suffered little during the wait,” the authors write.
Researchers call this mindset defensive pessimism or proactive coping, and it’s kind of a good thing.
Proactively coping allows anxious people to have already ruminated on how they might act if the disaster scenario were to come true.
Then, if it does, it’s easier for anxious people to put a plan into action instead of feeling bulldozed by a bad outcome they weren’t anticipating.
ANXIOUS PEOPLE ARE SMART
If ignorance is bliss, then “knowledge involves anguish,” as Slate pointed out in 2014 in response to a seriously ego-boosting study.
The researchers surveyed more than 100 university students, and those who scored higher on scales of worry and stress also scored higher on a scale of verbal intelligence.
“It is possible that more verbally intelligent individuals are able to consider past and future events in great detail, leading to more intense rumination and worry,” the study authors write.
But this relationship could also work in the opposite direction: people who are prone to feeling anxious might simply tend to devote more energy to learning (it’s a form of gaining control, after all), eventually leading to higher intelligence scores.
ANXIOUS PEOPLE ARE PREPARED FOR DANGER
Basically, your anxious brain is kind of like your bodyguard.
In people on the anxious end of the spectrum, the brain registers threatening negative emotions on other people’s faces – say, a regular customer glaring angrily as you step into “his” bar – in the motor cortex, a brain region associated with action.
In less-anxious people, those same negative emotions are processed in the temporal cortex, associated instead with face recognition, according to a recent study.
Should there be an actual crisis, the thinking goes, anxious people would be better primed to respond because their brains would have already noted a potentially shady situation.