Imagine a world completely free of anxiety.
Utopia, you say? Perhaps not.
Without anxiety, we would take dangerous risks that would likely cut our lives short. Perhaps we’d all text while driving. Maybe we’d cease all exercise and eat whatever we want, whenever we want. Unprotected sex—may feel like a good idea at the time.
Perhaps that green fuzzy salmon in the back of the fridge would seem like a reasonable dinner choice. Study for tests? Forget that! Why not just wing it and see what happens. Flunk out? Okay, whatever. Perhaps that shortcut down the dark alley at three in the morning would seem quite appealing. The threat of prison would not scare away those people intending violent harm.
Clearly, too little anxiety can cause problems.
Years back I evaluated a middle-aged man suffering from a severe case of the NOT-WORRYING-ABOUT-WHAT-OTHER-PEOPLE-THINKS. Due to a severe psychiatric condition this person literally had NO social anxiety whatsoever. He owned one ripped outfit (“What do I care what other people think!”) which he wore daily and never washed. He lived alone and would urinate in his pants out of apathy for other people’s reactions. He simply did not care.
If you had no anxiety whatsoever, think of the trouble that this would bring you! For peak performance, optimal anxiety is necessary. If you are moderately frightened of public speaking, you can harness that energy for a more dynamic presentation, rather than settling for a sluggish lethargy from lacking in anxiety. That applies to taking tests, completing projects at work, putting your best foot forward during a blind date, and so on. Optimal anxiety can be a very good thing.
What is NOT helpful is when anxiety is allowed to control your life. When anxiety is allowed to call the shots (rather than provide you with energy and incentive to take control of your own well-being) it tends to limit and impair functioning. You might panic during a test rather than focus on the task at hand. You might avoid visiting loved ones due to fears of flying or even leaving one’s home. Instead of co-existing with optimal anxiety in order to motivate yourself to make a reasonably good impression during a blind date, you might avoid dating altogether.
Like it or not, we need anxiety. A world without anxiety would be more of a hell than a utopia. On the other hand, a world free of anxiety disorders, where people live based on their values rather than fears—now that’s a place worth living in.
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.