The “Upside” of Anxiety in a Culture of Control

You’ve got to hand it to the editors of Time; in a digital age, they […]

David Zahl / 12.7.11

You’ve got to hand it to the editors of Time; in a digital age, they sure know how to make a person pick up a print magazine. Even if it’s out of sense of double-take disbelief at this week’s cover story – while the rest of the world learned about Egypt, we Americans got Alice Park’s bold “Why Anxiety Is Good For You.”  It’s enough to trigger anyone’s interest, maybe even their anxiety…! But the article itself is considerably less exciting or controversial than the title might suggest. Park provides a survey of current research in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, much of it inconclusive or, well, obvious: that anxiety can have an upside in so far as it (occasionally) alerts us to life-threatening danger, or at least the prospect of it – even if, as she makes clear, that’s more “fear” than “anxiety” per se. But it can sharpen our senses when we need them most.

In the most telling section, she alludes to the main problem with such so-called “evolutionary” understandings, namely, that our collective anxiety has gotten worse as the physical danger in our immediate environment has diminished. Also, the strategies being proposed here, while no doubt wise in and of themselves, assume the kind of personal control that is generating the anxiety to begin with. Park sees this as reason for hope, i.e. the same thing that’s causing your anxiety is the solution to it, while we might see it as an implicit endorsement for a hope that’s posited on something outside the realm of control – faith in a God who is in control (and is concerned with those who cannot control themselves). Pastorally speaking, even if there is some benefit to anxiety, I’m not sure how comforting that knowledge is to someone who’s suffering under the condition, as it doesn’t really address the essential awfulness of it. If anything it attempts to see through it, which is usually the last thing someone in that situation needs, at least in my experience.

The sad irony here is that the culture of control, as we termed it at last year’s Mbird Conference in NYC, tends to characterize both the “secular” and religious sphere these days. And that’s to say nothing of the rather depressing underlying assumption of the piece – that the purpose of life is not peace or contentment but performance. Sigh, ht McD:

“The presence of unpredictability, uncertainty and uncontrollability all provoke anxiety pretty automatically, says Sally Winston, co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. “It’s a signal of either an internal or an external threat.” Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting about 18% — 40 million — of adult Americans.

[Not] all anxiety should be battled. Sometimes it should be embraced — even celebrated. In just the right amounts, the hormones that drive anxiety can be powerful stimulants, arousing the senses to function at their sharpest. Psychologist are familiar with a curve — which appears in most of their textbooks — that elegantly captures the relationship between stress and performance. It’s a bell-shaped line that steadily climbs as the tension and worry that accompany a performance rise in lockstep with the quality of that performance. The peak of that arc — where the systems are clicking, the senses are alert and we recall with perfect clarity everything we’ve learned — is precisely where seasoned performers learn to hop off.


The key isn’t not to feel anxious; it’s to learn ways to manage that experience. “Anxiety itself is neither helpful nor hurtful,” says ASDI’s Winston. “It’s your response to your anxiety that is helpful or hurtful.”

Psychologists refer to this very straightforward idea as the difference between a challenge stress, which can light our competitive fire, and a threat stress, which can douse it fast. Most of the time, it feels as if our brain makes that choice by itself, without every consulting us.

Watching how [professional performers] work is what revealed to psychologists the dichotomy of challenge and threat stresses, and they’ve worked since to define the precise characteristics of the two states. “Challenge stress [occurs when] you feel like you can cope with the situation, that despite its high demands, you have the resources to handle it,” says Elissa Epel, a psychologist at the University of California, San Fransisco. “With threat stress, you feel less capable of handling the situation, and that can lead to a more unhealthy response.”

The problem with all this is that our ancient systems have not quite kept up with the modern world and aren’t terribly good at distinguishing between a jungle full of killer cats and a conference room full of nothing but other people. [ed. note: hmmm…]. If we can’t make the distinction, mortal terror can quickly consume us in decidedly nonmortal circumstances. And while our moments in the spotlight may not come all that often — certainly less often than professional performers–there are also the constant, subtler worries and pressures that grind at us every day, sometimes leaving us staring at the ceiling deep into the night. Collectively this creates a kind of chronic anxiety condition, with a nonstop series of stressors leaving us struggling with one crisis even as we’re worrying about the ones to come. That can lead to overload and paralysis.

“Worry is supposed to be Step 1 of problem solving, but it can be problem-generating instead,” says Reid Wilson of the University of NOrth Carolina at Chapel Hill, director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center. “If it gets going too long, it actually overrides your ability to problem-solve.”


In a series of experiments that investigated how mice who were fearful reacted to being startled, Davis showed that while anxiety may be related to fear, it is a more prolonged and diffuse response that involves a broader network of circuits. That makes sense, since anxiety is not just a fear of imminent danger but also a broader prospective reaction to possible dangers.

The fight-or-flight response [of fullblown fear], with its surging cortisol and respiratory and cardiovascular hysteria, leaves little room for learning, because it often bypasses the higher regions of the brain. Anxiety, by contrast, engages one more critical region of the brain — the prefrontal cortex, where we collect our thoughts by planning, organizing and reasoning.

So what distinguishes the steely-nerved from the jumpier types? Experiences, of course, account for a lot. A person with a traumatic childhood is likelier to grow up anxious than is one whose upbringing was relatively free of psychological or physical challenges. And being in a car accident is likely to make you more nervous on the highway than someone who’s never been in even a fender bender.

Genes are partly to blame as well, and this, like the fight-or-flight response, starts out as a very good thing. Newborn babies separated from their mothers immediately start crying and refuse to eat or sleep through the night…

The genetic piece of the puzzle may be even more complex than just the genes your parents were born with and pass on to you. Mom’s and Dad’s experiences with stress and anxiety and how they react to them can leave a genetic legacy in the form or how intensely certain genes are turned on or off. [ed. note: inheritance, eh?]


One happy fact for anxiety sufferers is that the very same system that drives anxiety in our stimuli-saturated world may also be our salvation. Because the anxiety circuits are built to bridge the emotional and cognitive parts of the brain, it’s possible to train ourselves out of a certain amount of anxiety with what therapists call habituation. Babies who cry or become tense when they hear a car horn or a thunderclap eventually learn that nothing dangerous follows the sound and thus learn to acknowledge but not react to it.

“One of the problems of chronic worriers is that they tend to have predictions of catastrophic outcomes that crowd out their consciousness,” says UNC’s Wilson. A better approach is to accept that your performance or presentation might crash and burn and decide that even when such disasters occur, they’re not fatal.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


3 responses to “The “Upside” of Anxiety in a Culture of Control”

  1. Ken says:

    A better approach is to accept that your performance or presentation might crash and burn and decide that even when such disasters occur, they’re not fatal. [ed. note: good luck!]

    Better that than depression.

    How poignant to see that clip of Rick Danko at the top of his game and before morbid obesity so cruelly marred his looks. Rick died 12 years ago this coming Saturday, a gentleman and a man of good cheer to the end by all accounts, despite his troubles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *