Look anything is bad for you if you have too much of it. Even drinking water will kill you if you don’t stop.
Anxiety is good because it shows you care. If I am writing something deeply personal, I should feel anxiety about the quality of my work. If my close friend of 25 years is in the hospital (and she is) I should feel anxiety. I would be a pretty weird friend if I didn’t.
The problem is when anxiety is always the response. My friend is sick, anxiety! I am stuck in traffic, anxiety! I have to learn a new skill, ANXIETY! I want to call my friend but I’m not sure how they responded to my last text ANXIETY! I would really like to ask for a raise but what if my boss hates mANXIETY! Oh my gosh, what a cute little puppANXIETY!
I mean, yeah, when seeing a cute puppy makes you anxious because you aren’t sure how the owner will react to you fawning over their dog, then yes, you’ve got a problem.
But anxiety in and of itself is fine. What’s not fine is when anxiety becomes the response to everything in life.
A little bit of depression is good. It forces self-reflection, and makes me more honest. Anger is good. On at least one occasion, anger may very well have saved my life. Fear definitely saved my life at least two times.
The problem is when one emotion completely dominates experience. So let’s take anxiety again. For those of you who suffer from it, it’s not just that the emotion recurs, is it? It’s that you have the same thoughts each time. Your mind goes down the same ruts. It looks like a habit.
You might be thinking, “Lauren. You can’t possibly be telling me I’m addicted to anxiety.” Look I’m not saying you are, but, let me put it this way. I’m not NOT saying it, either.
Here’s what I know. Any emotion, no matter how much we might label it “negative”, comes with a burst of energy. And for a lot of us who have suffered, that burst of energy might be better than feeling nothing.
Here’s what I also know. Even the most “positive” emotions are deeply unhealthy if they are the response to everything in life. I have learned to be very wary, for instance, of the “positive thinking” proponents whose response to all situations is cheerfulness or some version of the phrase, “everything happens for a reason.” The problem is that a forced positive mindset causes you to think that negative thoughts are bad, or in other words, are threats. So, since your 10,000 year-old brain is always on the lookout for threats, it starts looking for negative thoughts. You can see where this ends up.
Emotional agility, the ability to recognize different emotions and know when they matter, to yourself and others, is more resilient than relying on any particular emotional response.
Finally, here’s a lesson from my decades-long struggle with depression and mental illness. Shaming myself or beating myself up over my depression never worked. Trying to “battle” depression didn’t work either. What worked is to focus on what I wasn’t feeling, and to go out and do things that brought out those emotions that were buried or non-existent. And yes, in my autistic case, I did have to literally play-act out certain emotions that I had never felt. I had to make them up, and I’m still not sure that some of those emotions are “genuine”. I’m glad I did it. It was worth it.
In other words, I went way, way outside of my comfort zone. As a result, I learned new responses to life’s challenges and disappointments. And that did far more good than trying to go to war with “negative” emotions, emotions that might not feel good but that are deeply biological and often still necessary.