Anxiety affects people in different ways and under different circumstances. It may be mild, moderate or excessive. It may be short term or may come to dominate a life, and that’s when we think of it as an anxiety disorder. In order to understand what’s helpful or not about anxiety we can consider at least five ways in which it appears to be either advantageous to our wellbeing, or not.
1. Our interpretation of situations is the first thing to consider. Anxiety gives us an advantage when there is a real threat to our health or wellbeing. It helps us to become more wary, to take more precautions, or to get away from the danger as quickly as we can. Possible disadvantages are when and if we interpret situations as being far more threatening and dangerous than they actually are.
2. Our behavior is the second issue. Mild to moderate levels of anxiety are rarely likely to stop us doing things. It’s not uncommon to feel these levels of anxiety when entering into a new social situation, or taking an examination, or visiting the dentist for example. If we become so anxious that it prevents us doing such things then our anxiety is placing us at a distinct disadvantage.
3. Time is the third issue. Our bodies are designed to be able to respond to threatening situations and to recover once that threat has past. It gives us a distinct survival advantage and little or no danger follows this fight-or-flight pattern. Other people aren’t so lucky. The off switch appears stuck and high anxiety levels continue way beyond the time a threat has passed.
4. Trigger point is the fourth issue. In a normal situation there is no cause for a surge in anxiety unless or until a threat is known. The disadvantage for some is that their anxiety system is on a hair trigger. It fires up at the slightest hint of a threat and this, again, is a key sign of an anxiety disorder.
5. Finally, we can consider perspective. In someone with no obvious anxiety issues their level of anxiety will appear proportionate to the threat or danger level they are in. This is a clear advantage and it’s the way our anxiety mechanism is supposed to operate. The disadvantage comes when perspective and proportion is lost. Someone with an anxiety disorder will get anxious very easily and his or her anxiety response may be extreme.