Why Anxiety Has to Feel Bad

From a functional perspective, anxiety is a fascinating emotion because it acts a lot like fear but contains qualities of hope. Like hope, anxiety involves appraisals about an uncertain future. As a result, it’s a protective alarm bell, triggering discomfort and apprehension about the possibility of future threats. But it’s also a productive signal, telling us that there is a discrepancy between where we are now and where we hope to be and that averting threats and achieving our goals will require effort. As a result, anxiety activates action readiness tendencies to take flight or fight while simultaneously pushing us to work hard and achieve to get what we want but do not yet have. Like hope, anxiety cultivates endurance.

When our backs are against the wall, few other emotions keep us trained on the future so effectively, energizing and driving us to reach our goals, despite exhaustion or overwhelming obstacles.

Anxiety works so well not because it feel great to be anxious; just the opposite: it succeeds because it makes us feel so bad. Nervous. Worried. Tense. We’ll do practically anything to make the feeling go away. This is called negative reinforcement–stopping the anxious feeling is the reward. Anxiety drives us to do things that protect us and motivate us toward productive goals, which then in turn, by reducing our anxiety, signals to us that our actions have succeeded. This makes anxiety, with its own built-in self-destruct system, one of our best survival mechanisms.

If we think of anxiety–and other unpleasant emotions–only as something to be squashed and controlled, we miss the fact that anxiety is fundamentally information…

An excerpt from Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad) by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary (pages 31-32).