The surprising benefits of anxiety and how you could harness them

A small amount of anxiety can help you think more creatively

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WHEN we are worrying about an upcoming deadline or feeling overcome before an exam, it can seem absurd, almost insulting, to imagine that this has any advantages.

There can be no doubt that extreme anxiety is highly debilitating. At moderate levels, however, our nervous feelings can make us smarter problem-solvers and fuel original thinking. Anxiety may even benefit our health.

To understand why, we can see anxiety as a kind of alarm bell. It draws our attention to a situation that requires action, and greater sensitivity to those signals helps us respond more rapidly. “The physiological arousal and worrying thoughts operate quicker than our conscious evaluation of how demanding a situation is and whether we have the resources to handle it,” says Todd Kashdan, director of the Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University in Virginia. “This heightened awareness helps us make more informed decisions.”

As evidence, Kashdan points to research that tested undergraduates’ anxiety levels before tricking them into believing that they had infected a computer with a virus. Those who were more anxious ignored distractions when on their way to tell the IT team about the problem.

Similar reasoning may explain why one aspect of the personality trait neuroticism – related to worry and vulnerability – was found in another study to be linked to lower mortality during the study period. If you are constantly worried about your health, you might be more likely to seek medical…

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