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Anxiety: Benefits and Drawbacks

Vol. XXVII, No. 2
May 2024

by Maria Kereshi, Psy.D.

Anxiety is a natural response that evolved to help individuals manage potential threats and challenges. While it is usually associated with negative experiences, anxiety can also have some benefits and serve a useful purpose in certain situations. Mild to moderate levels of anxiety can enhance performance, provide an energy boost, and increase motivation to accomplish tasks. By acting as an internal alarm system, anxiety serves as a signal that something may be wrong or needs attention. It can help us identify potential dangers or problems, which prompts us to engage in proactive problem-solving or contingency planning. Anxiety can increase our alertness and focus, allowing us to be more attuned to our surroundings. Anxiety can sometimes be accompanied by a “gut feeling” or intuition about a particular situation. While it is essential to balance these intuitions with rational thinking, anxiety-driven intuition can help us make decisions based on subtle cues and past experiences.

Anxiety can appear in relationships and may even benefit them. Individuals with interpersonal anxiety often possess a higher degree of empathy and sensitivity towards others. They are attuned to the emotions and experiences of those around them as their own anxiety heightens their awareness of social cues and nonverbal communication. This awareness can make them more compassionate and understanding in their interactions with others.

Interpersonal anxiety may also make individuals hyper-aware of their surroundings and the behaviors of others. Such heightened observation can enable them to understand people’s needs, perspectives, and intentions more accurately, fostering deeper connections and insights in their relationships.

People with interpersonal anxiety often value and cherish their close relationships. Due to their fear of judgment or rejection, they may be selective in choosing their friends and communities. Once they establish trust and feel secure in a relationship, they can exhibit a strong sense of loyalty, commitment, and dedication, making them reliable and dependable community members.

Individuals with interpersonal anxiety often excel in active listening. Their anxiety-driven focus on others can make them attentive listeners who are genuinely interested in understanding and supporting the people with whom they engage. This careful listening can create a safe and validating space for others to share their thoughts and feelings, leading to positive experiences in ministry and more meaningful and fulfilling relationships.

The benefits of anxiety are most prominent when experienced at mild to moderate levels. When anxiety reaches higher levels, it can cause negative emotional, social, and health consequences.
In relationships, anxiety can also lead to communication difficulties and make it challenging for individuals to express themselves openly and effectively. People with high anxiety may struggle with articulating thoughts and feelings, fear judgment or rejection, or constantly worry about saying the wrong thing. There are also times when anxiety can trick us into thinking something is wrong when it is not. If rejection is anticipated, a neutral comment can be misinterpreted as a negative one. These errors can lead to misunderstandings, miscommunication, or a lack of emotional connection.

High anxiety in relationships can also lead to overdependence or enmeshment. An individual may seek constant reassurance or validation from colleagues, community, parishioners, or friends. They may rely heavily on others for emotional support, leading to an imbalanced dynamic. Excessive dependence can strain relationships and create feelings of resentment. On the other hand, some people will avoid or withdraw from social situations, which can make it difficult to maintain regular and meaningful interactions. The result can be a sense of emotional distance or isolation within these relationships.

Supporting someone with high anxiety can be challenging and emotionally demanding. The constant need for reassurance, accommodating avoidance behaviors, and managing the impact of anxiety on the relationship can feel overwhelming or irritating. Supporting those with high anxiety can sometimes lead to feelings of stress and frustration.

Anxiety can appear at different times throughout a person’s lifespan, and in specific situations. With time and observation, certain patterns may emerge that are more likely to trigger anxiety. Anxiety may appear during times of transition or when a person is trying something new and feeling inadequate. Anxiety can appear among persons in leadership or those responsible to leaders. Anxiety can also occur when hearing feedback, especially if the feedback is critical.

Once a person notices the appearance of anxiety, they can put measures into place to help reduce the anxiety when the situation reoccurs. A therapist can help figure out the patterns of anxiety based on an individual’s history and help develop reduction strategies. For some people medication can help lessen the impact of anxiety so that they are able to use therapy more effectively. There are also skills and practices that can be learned to calm anxiety in the moment such as prayer, mindfulness, and positive self-talk, among others. While it may take time and trial-and-error to figure out what works best for each person, such skillful guidance can be invaluable in responding to anxiety in a comprehensive way.

Dr. Maria Kereshi has worked with Saint Luke Institute since 2005. Her specialties include trauma related disorders, mood disorders, and working with clergy.

Read the case study which accompanies this article.