Can Anxiety Be Healthy? When Does It Become Unhealthy?

If you’re next in line for a roller coaster, you might feel butterflies in your stomach and a pounding heart in your chest. Yes, you’re feeling anxious, but on the right day, that might not be a bad thing.

The choice is up to you. Are you anxious-excited or are you anxious-fearful

Anxiety can have a positive alter ego. How might your mental health improve if you saw your most anxious moments as opportunities for excitement instead of signals for danger?

Let’s go over the main differences between healthy anxiety and unhealthy anxiety.

Images of Healthy Anxiety

Let’s give credit where credit is due—anxiety has been a key contributor to human survival for centuries. It’s a necessary human emotion that grabs your attention when you’re faced with a potential threat.

Earlier humans probably felt anxious when the birds got quiet, knowing a thunderstorm or nearby predator was closing in. Context clues in your environment control whether your flight-or-fight response fires, giving you the best chance of escape.

Today, you can rely on technology (in the form of homes, for example) to protect you from nature’s sharpest edges. People with healthy levels of anxiety can typically talk themselves off the cliff by discerning whether there’s a real threat. At times, they can even redirect anxious energy for their own benefit.

Imagine feeling anxious on the first day of school. You can use those jitters to shake your leg and space out in class, or you can channel them into strict note-taking and applying a closer eye to the syllabus. 

Images of Unhealthy Anxiety

If feelings of intense anxiety are getting in the way of your health or your ability to live the life you want, your anxiety may be in unhealthy territory.

People with anxiety disorders feel almost-to-always constant levels of fear that get in the way of their daily life. Sometimes they don’t even know why we’re anxious in the first place. When the feelings persist every day (or almost every day) for at least six months, it’s time to seek help.

Anxious minds may respond to completely normal stressors by experiencing a series of racing “What if?” thoughts. Let’s say it’s your turn to lead stretches in a workout class. Your head may spiral through a series of unrealistic thoughts, like…

What if…

  • …I trip over my words counting to ten?
  • …Everyone laughs at me?
  • …They all mock and talk over me?
  • …I can’t come back to class?
  • …I never work out again?

Once the spiraling thoughts start, it’s hard to slow them down. They can snowball into lifestyle choices like staying home to avoid risking another public embarrassment.

When obsessive thinking patterns and/or disastrous rumination drain you of your energy and prevent you from pursuing your interests, it’s time to seek help.

How Therapy Can Help Relieve You of Anxiety

Taking notice of your anxiety is the first step toward healing it. 

The next time you feel anxious, try to pause and notice the tightness in your chest, the tension in your arms, or the stiffness of your mouth. What does your anxiety look like at that moment? 

The more you can identify that feeling, the easier you can see how it connects to your thoughts and behaviors. Counseling can even help you realize that thoughts of failure can lead to intense feelings of fear that then bleed into goal-setting behaviors. One 2011 study even proved that people with anxiety were more likely to set unreachable goals that lead to more feelings of failure, and eventually, more anxiety.

Try working with a therapist to set goals that are grounded in self-love instead of self-criticism to boost your confidence and inspire resilience. Schedule an appointment today to see a new side of your anxiety—a more hopeful one than you’ve known before.

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