Anxiety January 2018

Most people think that anxiety, and being anxious, are a bad thing to have and be. Modern culture offers many solutions for reducing anxiety as though it were a disease. In this essay I will argue that anxiety is actually a good, and beyond that necessary thing, without which we would be worse off. The issue comes down to how we perceive, use and measure anxiousness.

Anxiety is defined as an unpleasant state of inner turmoil. In practice, people recognize it more by how it feels and how they perceive it. It can feel like restless dread, or uneasiness, or just plain old fear. It really doesn’t matter how you define it as long as you know what it feels like.

Modern life is relatively complex and comfortable, as opposed to the alternative natural life which is simple but uncomfortable. The trade offs we make tend to be intended to benefit our comfort, but the indirect implication is that things that make us feel bad are inherently bad. We accept increasing complexity so that we can feel more comfortable and ease our anxiety.

One way to gauge the utility of something is to look at what would happen if it were removed entirely. The removal cost. What would happen if anxiety were removed entirely? To understand that, we would need to define what the opposite of anxiety is. There are many antonyms, but they all come down to a similar idea: contentment, calm and certainty. What’s wrong with that?

The world is not currently, and will never be, contentment inducing, calming or certain. We all know someone who exhibits those traits in practice, but we would rarely confuse them with someone that has a high level of environmental awareness. Calm, content, certain people tend to practice selective ignorance and be less aware of things that could bring harm to them.

Most of our life is spent in situations that present relatively low risks to our survival. You can debate the purpose of life endlessly, but across pretty much all religions, cultures and timelines, survival ranks pretty highly. Generally it ranks at the top of the list, ahead of service, learning, reproduction and other things people dedicate their lives to. How does this relate to anxiety?

Anxiety has been framed most recently as a disorder. What if we used a positive synonym for anxiety? Instead of calling it anxiety, we could call it awareness, which amounts to the same thing except that in practice in means being aware of negative things. Being aware of negative things definitely feels like a bad thing, compared to not being aware of bad things.

The reality is though that being aware of bad things is pretty much the central force governing how successfully we survive. We are alive more or less because we and our ancestors were anxious. Therefore anxiety is a key force for the good of the survival of us as individuals.

Without it, we might be temporarily calm but missing more important things that will affect us in the near or distant future. Our calm, content, certain friend tends not to be so when a projectile is flying towards them. They just have a more comfortable state when that is not the case.

Everyone tends to agree that acute anxiousness, or fight or flight, is a good thing that protect us. I would argue that chronic, long-term anxiousness could actually be seen in the same light if viewed on a longer timescale. Chronically anxious people may have less comfort, but they also have less mortality. Eventually, less mortality wins. Being anxious isn’t bad, and won’t go away. One could medicate themselves or avoid their anxious feelings, but the awareness they avoid disadvantages them and their long term prospects. Eventually, everyone will be anxious again.

So at this point it is clear that anxiety is a both good and necessary thing, though uncomfortable. What can be done then to channel anxiety into useful things that result in more comfort? Anxiety gives us a strong desire to address negative things that we predict will bring harm.

The right way to manage anxiety is to channel it into addressing what it makes you aware of. Most of the time, you are predicting something bad will happen. That should be a signal to you to put in the effort needed to ensure that the situation doesn’t go how you predict it will go. That is the intention behind the force of anxiety, and it cannot be outrun for the good of your survival.

Our bodies, temperaments and forces like anxiety were mainly designed to keep us in the gene pool. This is unpleasant at best, and traumatizing at worse. But perhaps unpleasant feelings and trauma are intentionally built into the way we are as a way of preventing us from becoming too comfortable and avoiding past mistakes. Perhaps, without these things, we can’t even learn.

So anxiety is not in practice a problem that should be cured, like a disease. In almost all cases, it isn’t disordered at all, but offers the person experiencing it valuable information about their future environment. It’s important though to change how we perceive, use and measure it or we will inevitably feel some level of guilt that being anxious is bad. It is not, and can never be.