Reasonable Anxiety

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In an existential context no anxiety at all or very high levels of it are bad while reasonable, bearable levels are good. We will get into what reasonable is. The idea of anxiety being a good thing comes as a shock to a lot of us and the simple act of processing the ramifications is often enough to provide real relief and to enrich our situations.

As we have said elsewhere, life would be pointless and boring without any anxiety at all. Anxiety is the threat of nothingness, either real or symbolic, and this threat is what gives our lives meaning, direction, and excitement. Think of that tingling feeling before an adventure. Without the possibility of failure there could be no success. Without the possibility of things going wrong they could never go right. Without the always present threat of death life would have no urgency. We wouldn’t feel that pull to make our lives full and great while we have the chance. Existential anxiety is our birthright as human beings and although the feeling is not always pleasant, if we can learn to embrace it instead of run away from it we almost always learn something important about our situations and move closer to enlightenment. Anxiety ceases to feel like an enemy and instead becomes a good friend. It always has been a friend, just without us always knowing it.

Take as an example a doctor who reports feelings of anxiety because of preoccupation that a patient might die under her care. This is the ultimate threat of nothingness so existential anxiety is to be expected. If this anxiety were sky high and incapacitating, it would probably keep her from doing a good job. But no anxiety at all might also keep her from doing a good job because of mistakes caused by carelessness. In other words, having some anxiety makes sense given the situation, and reasonable levels of it are probably making her a better doctor.

Her problem is not so much the presence of anxiety, but that she hasn’t had the chance to view it in a positive light. She feels distressed, wondering if something might be wrong with her. But there is nothing wrong with her and the solution is to embrace her anxiety, realizing that feeling none at all where a person’s life is on the line might be more of a problem from a clinical point of view. It might indicate a lack of empathy, depression, or burnout, for example.

Simply shifting perception, viewing the feeling of existential anxiety in a positive light instead of a negative light, can have a huge effect on how we view our lives. It’s usually the feelings surrounding anxiety that cause the most problems, not the anxiety itself. For some people, anxiety becomes unmanageable and starts to affect work performance, personal relationships, or quality of life. In these cases we work to bring it down to reasonable levels where functioning is possible. But we would never want to eradicate anxiety altogether because we would lose what makes us human and we would lose the guidepost that allows us to infuse our lives with meaning.