Anxiety is part of human nature.

Understanding anxiety means grasping the significance of its existence—where present and future converge.

That moment, while you’re in the present and, yet, at the same time also confronted with numerous “what ifs” and possible future outcomes that may or may not happen.

The choice you have to make while teetering at that point? – Heeding your anxious feelings or not.

Sounds rather unstable and confusing, doesn’t it?

Maybe it would be better to just completely eliminate anxiety from your life. After all, it sounds like it brings more harm than good.

Does it?

Understanding Anxiety’s Useful Role

Anxiety plays an important role in human nature. A certain amount of it is useful—even vital—for identifying trouble.

On the most basic level, this means that anxiety signals impending danger (usually to your life), which allows you to avoid, escape, or defend yourself against that peril. This is generally called the “fight-or-flight” response.

In a more extended sense, anxiety can also alert you to various non-physical risks. For instance, when you’re faced with a big, life-altering decision, it’s normal and appropriate to feel some anxiety. In that situation, anxiety’s role is to give you an extra mental charge to help you think your choice through before you make it.

woman with hand on forehead surrounded by words stress anxiety etcIn either case, anxiety functions as a sort of security system to keep you alert and safe. Without it, you would be completely vulnerable, unaware of trouble until it would be too late.

Understanding anxiety in this context—as a useful protection—can not only give you an edge in various situations but also foster an appreciation for this emotion.

Too much anxiety, however, can be problematic.

Understanding Anxiety’s Harmful Aspect

Overwhelming anxiety—often called panic—can render you unable to think. All you want to do is obey that urge to escape.

If anxiety would signal you to flee when there is real danger—like a wild animal—the urge to obey would certainly be reasonable. The problem is, though, that at times, there is no true peril. The signal is actually coming from inside of you, without the presence of imminent danger.

Most often, this type of anxiety means you are probably too focused on imagining negative scenarios, allowing “what ifs” and “if onlys” to control your thoughts. Perhaps you’re a perfectionist, trying to anticipate every possible consequence and holding yourself to impossible standards.

Worse even, anxiety that is not based on evident threats can also be chronic. Bad life experiences, such as trauma, can drive anxious feelings on through powerful memories that keep circling in your mind. The effect is that you become paralyzed, unable to think straight and act decisively.

Usually, that happens when you’ve lost trust in yourself. You may have gone through years and years of second-guessing yourself due to a traumatic event. And now, you’re unable to make any decisions because you believe any choice you make will be flawed.

So, you simply make no decisions at all.

That’s when anxiety goes beyond being harmful—it becomes crippling. It causes inaction, and in turn, a loss of freedom. You become so stuck in an imagined future, that you’re unable to see the possibilities of the present.

But understanding anxiety’s harmful aspects can help you reach out for help.

So, Is Anxiety Useful or Harmful?

As noted at the outset, anxiety happens when reality and possibility converge. In other words, in the very moment when you have the freedom to make a choice and act.

Many of your decisions, especially big ones, will make you anxious because they connect to your identity—who you will be. And that’s not a simple matter.

Sometimes, well-meaning people will tell you not to worry. That’s actually not very helpful advice. It’s never a bad idea to mull over your worries, get a sense of what about a situation makes you anxious. Perhaps you have overlooked something and you need to calmly think it over once more. Asking yourself serious questions is always helpful.

In the end, understanding anxiety means realizing that it can be both a useful and harmful part of human nature.

On one hand, understanding anxiety can give you an opportunity to fully assess your choices and consider carefully how you’ve been living your life. On the other hand, understanding anxiety can also help you realize that anxiety is capable of disabling you to the point of costing you the freedom of making choices and living a fulfilling life.

Simply put, it’s a double-edged sword.

But even in the worst-case scenario, you can learn to manage your anxiety. With professional help, you can become familiar with your own emotional state and learn to be mindful of what your anxiety might be telling you. Yes, understanding anxiety can actually help you conquer it.