Stress & Anxiety Can Actually Be Helpful, Researchers Say, & Here’s How

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Anxiety disorders are a major mental health issue and can interfere with your quality of life in deeply frustrating ways. While both chronic stress and anxiety can be harmful if they go unaddressed for a long time, experiencing some stress and anxiety isn’t always a bad thing, researchers say. Acute feelings of anxiety can be a helpful inner alarm system of sorts, warning you that something might be off or dangerous in your environment. By using these feelings as a sort of internal GPS, you may be able to avoid potentially harmful experiences. Anxiety becomes problematic, however, when the ‘alarm’ goes off, but there’s no actual threat.

According to a recent presentation at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association (APA), acute stress and anxiety can play a helpful role in navigating your day to day life. In fact, the sensation of anxiety is meant to serve as a warning. It can alert you to danger, and help you change course when something isn’t right for you. Experiencing stress and anxiety can’t be totally avoided, so learning how to navigate these challenging feelings while using them to your benefit can actually help promote your quality of life. Leaning into what you’re feeling (even when it’s uncomfortable) can help you leverage your stress, so that you can make more empowered choices.

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“Many Americans now feel stressed about being stressed and anxious about being anxious,” Dr. Lisa Damour, PhD, a private-practice psychologist and columnist for The New York Times, said in a recent press release on the conference. “Unfortunately, by the time someone reaches out to a professional for help, stress and anxiety have already built to unhealthy levels."

"Stress is usually an indicator that you’re being pushed beyond the established limits of your ability in some area," Dr. Damour said in the press release. Dr. Damour noted that it can be helpful to understand that both positive and negative life events can cause stress. You’d probably feel stressed out if you lose your job, for instance, but you might also feel stressed or anxious if you get promoted. Either way, some stress is to be expected in daily life, said Dr. Damour. However, even though being pushed past your comfort zone can feel stressful, it can also lead to new skill development and personal growth.

“It's important for psychologists to share our knowledge about stress with broad audiences: That stress is a given in daily life, that working at the edge of our abilities often builds those capacities, and that moderate levels of stress can have an inoculating function, which leads to higher than average resilience when we are faced with new difficulties,” Dr. Damour said according to the press release.

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The potential benefits of anxiety can be significant, Dr. Alice Boyes, PhD, wrote for Psychology Today. People who experience anxiety tend to attune to when things don’t feel right, and may be better prepared when setbacks happen. "Anxiety is an internal alarm system, likely handed down by evolution, that alerts us to threats both external — such as a driver swerving in a nearby lane — and internal, such as when we've procrastinated too long and it's time to get started on our work,” said Dr. Damour according to in the APA press release. If you feel anxious about a work project that’s due soon, for instance, that anxiety can serve as guidance that it’s time to buckle down.

Anxiety becomes problematic, however, when there’s no real need for worry, or when your symptoms don’t subside after a stressful issue is resolved, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says. Anxiety disorders happen when your anxiety persists or gets worse over time. Untreated chronic stress and anxiety can hurt your overall health, Dr. Damour said, so make sure to check in with a qualified therapist if you can’t find relief on your own. If you feel overwhelmed by stress, or if your anxiety symptoms become chronic, a good counselor can help you develop strategies that may ease your stress and anxious feelings over time.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.