We all know anxiety is a cruel mistress. We’re aware that a panic attack can feel like a near-death experience; that being blighted by an endless cycle of sabotaging thoughts is debilitating and suffocating and terrifying all at the same time. But what if something good could come of anxiety? What if we could start to re-frame the way we think about our nervous natures?
For years, anxiety sufferers have been strafed by studies that suggest we are lesser people. Social psychologists at the University of Iowa, for example, recently argued that anxiety makes us less able to feel empathy for others. Academic researchers from the University of Illinois believe it can have a negative impact on cognitive performance too. Well, call it science, but believe me – this sort of thinking is like a punch in the gut to those of us who already feel like we are failing in most aspects of our lives.
So when I stumbled across new research from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, which suggests those with anxiety are actually better in crisis situations (because our brains are hyper-alert and poised to react to threats in lightning-fast time), I wanted to weep into my keyboard with relief. This was the first time I had read anything remotely positive about anxiety. The first time it wasn’t presented as a life sentence, a sign of fragility, or an unwieldy annoyance to be whispered about then hurled like a silent grenade swiftly out of sight.
I wasn’t always an anxious person. As I child I had the kind of arrogant confidence that comes with being popular at school, good at sports and completely oblivious to the idea that something could ever happen to upend my perfect existence. Things changed. And I’ve negotiated anxiety for over a decade of my life now; often dancing with it at 3 o’clock in the morning, when I become certain my widowed mother – some 200 miles away in her bed – is suffering a heart attack. (“Who’ll find her body in the morning?” I’ll think in the small hours. “I’d better ring the house phone in case she needs an ambulance.”)
Questions like these have become my incessant internal dialogue; the same voice that likes to remind me that I can’t do my job and that my friends would rather I wasn’t around. The same voice that calls me a "fat" or “disgusting" on a regular basis. (I have the harshest of inner critics that takes advantage of the sense of shame I feel every day.)
Personally, I do believe my anxiety is part of what makes me a good person. As someone who feels vulnerable on a daily basis, I think it puts me in a better position to imagine another’s pain
I have felt for a long time that anxiety has changed me wholly as a person. That it has forced me to live as a decrepit shadow of my full potential. So when I read about these studies, it was like a small sort of revelation. Being anxious does not mean I am not a good, strong person. I had forgotten that.
There is plenty of research out there reinforcing the idea that anxiety has its upsides. Small-level studies carried out by PSL Research University in France, for example, found that those with anxiety are better at reading negative emotions in other people. Research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests those with mild anxiety are seen as more trustworthy than others. Anxious people have also been proven to have better memories and one study, by researchers at King’s College London, has even found that anxious adolescents are considerably less likely to be killed in an accident than their less anxious peers (well, that’s a win).
Some of the world’s most brilliant thinkers were anxiety sufferers too, including Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln. Edvard Munch’s iconic painting The Scream even came to him during a panic attack that played out as a vision of a blood-red sky – proof that us anxiety sufferers don’t always have mush for brains.
Personally, I do believe my anxiety is part of what makes me a good person. As someone who feels vulnerable on a daily basis, I think it puts me in a better position to imagine another’s pain. I also know it makes me kinder, less judgmental and more tactful with the emotions of other people, and I’m very sure it has lent facets to my personality – unpredictability, a creative streak and the tendency towards pantomime emotional extremes – that just wouldn’t be there without it. I’d miss them if they were gone.
For today, this new research may just be a headline on a rolling news-feed, but for me – it’s a reason to celebrate what I previously saw as my biggest flaw. Yes, anxiety can be messy and ugly and paralysing, but I refuse to be bowed by it. I will not feel guilty, or selfish, or ashamed because my brain is wired a particular way. I know I am not weak. I know that my mind is curious and strong. And if there is any glimmer, any shred of science that reinforces the idea that playing host to something so parasitic for all these years could potentially have bred something good in me – I’m sure as hell going to latch onto it with my clammy, anxious fingers and never let it go.