Anxiety Can Be an Early Warning System
Anxiety can have a purpose, alerting us to the fact that something is wrong in our lives. Are you listening to your anxiety? Granted, anxiety doesn’t feel great. In fact, it can feel downright terrible. It can cause us to overthink everything, often makes us emotional, and even makes us feel physically ill anywhere in our body. It’s natural to hate anxiety and struggle against it, pushing it away and trying to decrease the symptoms. We don’t typically want to sit with it and listen to it. Sometimes, though, anxiety can be an early warning system, and listening to it might be one of the best things we can do for our wellbeing and the quality of our lives.
Anxiety Can Be an Early Warning System Alerting Us to Problems
If you live with anxiety, chances are you’re not a huge fan. After all, anxiety can seriously interfere in people’s lives. It can lead to excessive worry that consumes a lot of time and energy, and it can even lead to avoidance. When anxiety creates great misery and begins disrupting life, an anxiety disorder may be at work. Seeking the help of a mental health professional can help you sort things out and get back on track. Anxiety can indeed be debilitating, but sometimes it can be our friend.
Believe it or not, anxiety does have a positive purpose. It’s an evolutionary early warning system that is a built-in protective mechanism. Being alert and on edge has saved us from dangerous situations and may have kept us alive. Historically, it prevented us from exploring dark caves that housed big, mean, hungry animals. It does this yet today by keeping us out of dark alleys when we’re alone at night. These are obvious functions of anxiety, and it’s nice to be alive to appreciate them.
While one important function of anxiety is self-preservation, anxiety has a purpose beyond safety. Self-preservation is more than staying alive. It also is about your ability to create a meaningful life, one that feels right and fulfilling to you. Anxiety can be that sensation deep in the gut or those nagging thoughts in your mind that are trying to tell you that something in your life isn’t right and needs your attention.
Listen to What Anxiety is Trying to Tell You
While our first instinct when we feel anxious is often to do anything we can to get rid of it, it can be wise to instead take some time to listen to it. Often, we feel problems subconsciously before we fully are aware of them. Noticing anxiety and listening to it can help us identify if there’s something in our life that needs changing. Anxiety can tell us that there’s something off about:
- Relationships–This can be a romantic partnership, a friendship, or a relationship with a boss or coworker. If you are constantly on edge when you’re with a certain person, the relationship might not be a healthy one for you, and anxiety might be telling you that you need to make a change.
- Job or career choice–Constantly feeling anxiety or dread about going to work can be a signal that your current work situation isn’t a good fit for you.
- Lack of freedom or control–We all need to feel a degree of control over our own life and to experience the freedom to make decisions for ourselves. When this important part of wellbeing is missing, anxiety is often the result.
- Fun (or lack thereof)–All work and no play leads to stress, anxiety, and potential mental- and physical health problems. If you’re constantly keyed up and anxious, maybe it’s a sign that you need to shift gears and incorporate fun and relaxation into your life.
- Health–If you’re worried about nagging health symptoms, this anxiety might be prompting you to see a doctor. While it’s tempting to ignore such problems out of fear of learning that something is wrong, health anxiety is often a strong nudge to get the symptoms checked. Then, you can either have peace of mind that you’re healthy or begin treatment to regain health.
Notice when your anxiety spikes, and pause when you can (if you are somewhere or doing something that doesn’t allow you to pause and ponder your anxious thoughts and feelings, briefly jot down a description of your feelings and thoughts and describe what you were doing when you noticed your anxiety so you can return to it later). Do this often, and begin to look for patterns. Is there a certain person or situation that seems to be at the root of your angst? Do you feel free from worries on Saturdays but begin to feel dread as Sunday progresses? Is something specific, like a concern about money, the dominating feature of your anxiety?
Pausing to notice your anxiety and be still enough to listen does feel uncomfortable. However, this discomfort may help you realize that you need to make a change in your life. Once you’re aware of this, you can begin to make action plans toward positive change. As you do so, you just may notice that your anxiety recedes and is replaced with contentment.
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Tanya J. Peterson delivers online and in-person mental health education for students in elementary and middle school. She is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She also speaks nationally about mental health. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.