The surprising benefits of anxiety

Anxiety isn’t pleasant, but it can bring benefits.
Anxiety isn’t pleasant, but it can bring benefits.
Image: Reuters/ Lucas Jackson
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“Anxiety can just as well express itself in muteness as with a scream,” wrote existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in 1844.

While Kierkegaard spent much of his work analyzing the agonizing nature of anxiety, he did not think that it was an emotional state to be avoided. Instead, the philosopher argued that one cannot live an authentic life without grappling with anxiety.

In the centuries since, advances in psychiatry have led to increasingly better methods for treating crippling anxiety. But, in the process, we have culturally abandoned Kierkegaard’s key idea—that, however unpleasant, anxiety can be beneficial.

Simon Wolfe Taylor, whose Columbia Ph.D. thesis and upcoming book, The Conquest of Dread: Anxiety From Kierkegaard to Xanax, charts anxiety’s progress from a malady of the soul to a disease of the mind, believes that embracing the potential positives is a useful way of coping with the emotion.

“It’s a romantic-sounding view and I’m not saying there’s no role for medication,” he says. “But the literature, at least for 150 years and arguably for 1,500 years, always tried to show us the potential upside of anxiety… Kierkegaard says anxiety sucks, it’s really horrible and one of the most agonizing things you can go through, but you cannot be a creative, imaginative human being without anxiety. That’s the cost of entry for being that kind of a person.”

He points out that in earlier decades, anxiety was be treated by reading Homer, the Bible, and other literary classics. “Today, very few people when diagnosed with an anxiety disorder think of cracking open a copy of Pascale or Montesquieu to try and treat their illness,” he adds. “It’s very much seen within this medical paradigm.”

To be clear, the use of various therapies and medications to treat anxiety is an entirely positive development, and plenty of people don’t turn to Homer simply because reading would be of little help.

But, for others, surely there’s room for both medical treatment and self-exploration in response to anxiety. In my own case, I discovered Kierkegaard’s existentialism following my first period of anxiety during my sophomore year of college. I cannot say whether these ideas helped dispel my own anxious state or if it had already waned enough that I could enjoy reading once again, but I would not have felt such a deep connection to Kierkegaard without personally facing such emotions.

Gordon Marino, a philosophy professor at St. Olaf College, describes a similarly personal response in his introduction to Basic Writings of Existentialism. “I came to existentialism on my knees, after a youthful divorce and in the cold grip of a withering depression,” he writes, before describing how he experienced a revelation while flipping through a copy of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love in a used bookstore. “Today, orthodoxy has it that sudden psychological changes are chemical in nature, but there was a time when we still believed that an idea, or an interpretation of your experience, could turn the page of that experience,” he adds.

Though the United States is today at the forefront of methods to treat anxiety, Taylor notes that during the Cold War, there was a patriotic attempt to celebrate anxiety. He points to figures such as public intellectual Arthur Schlesinger Jr., theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and, existential psychologist Rollo May, who suggested that anxiety was an inherent condition of a democratic society. Such ideas explicitly relate to Kierkegaard, who believed that anxiety was a response to the freedom we face, and the responsibility we bear for each of our decisions in light of that freedom.

“These American thinkers said yes, it’s true that we’re anxious and the Soviet Union is very strong and single-minded and determined,” says Taylor. “But what the Soviet Union lacks is freedom, imagination, and creativity. Communism can never have those things, democracy can, and ultimately aren’t we fighting for freedom, imagination?”

This attempt to embrace anxiety did not leave a cultural mark, which Taylor views as regrettable. “There are anxiety disorders that are awful and cause great pain, physical and mental, to a lot of people. But I’m also of the view that a lot of people currently being treated for anxiety disorders might be able to ameliorate that or make it more manageable if it were framed and packaged somewhat differently. If it were framed as something to be grasped and seized upon and wrestled with in order to produce creativity and ideas.”

There is some evidence to support the notion that a cultural framing of a mental health condition can shape experiences. Research suggests that viewing anxiety as a positive can boost performance, while different cultures experience mental health differently. For example, those in Japan with depression are far more likely to demand treatment for physical rather than emotional symptoms.

Though psychiatrists today typically focus on the negative aspects of anxiety, there are some who also recognize its positives. Tracy Foose, professor and associate director of adult psychiatry clinics at University of California San Francisco, notes that while anxiety isn’t emotionally enjoyable, it can make you a better person.

“From the perspective of the individual, anxiety tends to be associated with the genetic profile of someone whose temperament is characterized by honesty, attention to detail, a strong drive, pursuit of excellence, and social attunement to the needs to others,” she says. “For an individual, though anxiety can be incapacitating, a lot of those other traits make them fairly likable and successful in what they pursue.”

This is not a straightforward benefit; Foose says she’s found that writers she treats for anxiety have the drive to pursue such creativity, but also the self-doubt to question their work. But Foose believes that as anxiety has been pathologized, symptoms of severe anxiety disorders have come to be seen as conditions that deserve treatment in their own right. And she inadvertently echoes Kierkegaard, noting that anxiety used to be a motivator to change one’s path in life, rather than an emotional experience to be eradicated.

“I don’t know why anxiety is not more appreciated as an emotional state,” she says. “We seem to have culturally developed a fear of fear.”