Yet, anxiety might not be all bad for us today. History is rich with examples of anxiety — or at least certain forms of it — functioning as a valuable emotional response to uncertainty. And recent research affirms this picture of anxiety’s upside. For instance, political scientists have found that anxiety about public policy matters may spur voters to become more informed, open-minded and engaged. Similarly, work in philosophy suggests that anxiety can promote virtuous thought and action. So even in the face of the crushing pandemic-driven uncertainty we’re experiencing, our anxiety can help us better appreciate our values and assess our priorities.
Anxiety comes in several forms, and it’s important to distinguish among them. Clinical anxiety, which involves excessive, persistent worries about everyday life, is unhealthy, and can be crippling. And then there’s the more typical sort of anxiety that we feel when our self-image or reputation is at stake — anxiety about public speaking, going on a blind date or tomorrow’s big game. This sort of anxiety has both benefits — it can provide a boost of energy and a sharpened focus — and drawbacks — it can make us more wary and risk averse, leading us to flub our performance or avoid the situation altogether.
There’s also a third type of anxiety: uncertainty about future choices. Should I go to law school or pursue a PhD in philosophy? Is it time to put my aging father in a nursing home? With anxiety about questions like these, our worries are driven less by a defensive desire to protect our self-image, and more by a concern to make the right decision.
This type of anxiety can be beneficial, deepening inquiry, reflection and bringing a willingness to reconsider our views. In this way, it functions as an alarm, both alerting us to the difficulty of the decision we face, and providing an important source of motivation — one that prompts us to work through our uncertainty about the correct thing to do.
Consider the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In her autobiography, Stanton recounts the anxiety she felt about getting married. While her father vehemently opposed her marriage because her fiance was an abolitionist, Stanton found herself captivated by her husband-to-be’s principles and the impassioned anti-slavery speeches she’d seen him give.
Still, the anxiety Stanton felt about this conflict was intense and, at one point, it even led her to call off her engagement. But those worries also prompted her to seek advice from her sister about what she ought to do. Not only did those anxiety-driven reflections help Stanton see that she should renew her plan to get married, but they also revealed why she should do it and what she valued. For instance, shortly after she renewed her marriage plans, Stanton protested her minister’s suggestion to include a traditional vow of obedience in the ceremony. As she explained, a vow to obey was fundamentally at odds with the equal union she was entering into with her soon to be husband.
Similarly, Nelson Mandela often remarked on the unease that the demands of being both a father and a freedom fighter brought. In fact, these anxieties led him to reflect on “whether one was ever justified in neglecting the welfare of one’s own family to fight for the welfare of others.”
As with Stanton, Mandela’s anxiety reveals his sensitivity to holding important, but clashing, values. Were he not anxious about how to reconcile his competing obligations to his family and the anti-apartheid movement, our admiration of him as a moral exemplar would diminish. Moreover, Mandela’s anxiety also helped him clarify his thinking. He came to see that his commitments — to both family and the fight for freedom — were equally important and deeply intertwined. Fighting for freedom was, in some way, fighting for his family.
Of course, as anyone who has experienced anxiety knows, it can lead us astray. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Édouard Daladier met with Adolf Hitler to negotiate what would become the Munich Agreement, the compact where the Allied powers agreed to hand over a significant portion of Czechoslovakia in the hopes of sating Hitler’s expansionist ambitions. When Chamberlain returned to Britain after signing that disastrous agreement, he was called before Parliament to defend his actions. In response, he explained that it was “anxiety” that “made possible the concessions” to Hitler.
So even if anxiety can be a valuable emotion at times, what can be done to prevent it from producing disaster as it did for Chamberlain? The experiences of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh provide one answer. Though Marsh has performed over 400 brain surgeries, he says that these procedures still make him anxious. But he doesn’t see his anxiety as a distraction or a curse. Rather, he sees it as the emotional expression of his accumulated surgical expertise. When determining whether to remove more of a tumor — at the risk of damaging healthy brain tissue — he is guided by his anxiety. As he explains, “You stop when you start getting more anxious. That’s experience.”
The examples of Marsh, Stanton and Mandela suggest that anxiety is a skill that we can shape for the better through learning and experience, much like what we do when learning to ride a bike or to play the cello. The goal is to channel the unpleasant emotion into a productive course.
For example, a study by the psychologist Jeremy Jamieson suggests that when we view our anxiety as a good thing, it can help us perform better. In this work, GRE test-takers read a paragraph explaining that their pretest anxieties could improve their performance. When they then took the GRE, they ended up outperforming those who took the test without reading about the benefits that anxiety can bring. We see something similar in sports: Athletes who view their pre-competition anxiety as a liability tend to preform worse than those who see their anxiety as a useful source of motivation.
Rather than letting our worries get the better of us, as Chamberlain seems to have done, we must work to harness their power as Stanton, Mandela and Marsh did. The pandemic leaves us worried about our health, our finances and our priorities. But anxiety in the face of real uncertainties like these is essential to being appropriately emotionally attuned — after all, these are things we should be worried about. Anxiety can help us appreciate our values, reflect on our priorities and so come to better decisions about what to do as covid-19 scrambles our lives.