We are often told that stress and anxiety are feelings that should be minimized. But one psychologist wants to change that. Recently, at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in Chicago, psychologist Lisa Damour, Ph.D., gave a presentation showing how stress and anxiety can be positive forces in our lives, as long as we learn how to listen to them.
Damour says that stress and anxiety should not be avoided but embraced as our body’s way of telling us that we are encountering the types of difficult experiences that can result in personal growth.
“My work with teenagers has got me thinking a lot about how we as a culture deal with stress and anxiety,” Damour tells Inverse. And while she primarily treats adolescent girls, with this topic, she seeks to bring her message to the broader society.
“I would say there is a huge gap — basically a Grand Canyon — between what we psychologists know about stress and anxiety, and how the culture views stress and anxiety,” she adds.
Damour’s argument is that the so-called “happiness industry,” which consists of popular ideas about happiness that make us feel bad or broken for not always being comfortable and stress-free, sets us up for failure. In fact, Damour says, stress and anxiety are unavoidable aspects of daily life for everyone, and they can have significant upsides.
Stress and Anxiety Are Natural Responses to the World
“Anxiety is an internal warning system that alerts us to stress, both those around us and those within us,” Damour says. “If we’re driving, and there’s somebody nearby who’s swerving, we should feel anxious, and that is what alerts us to make a change. If we’re procrastinating on something and start to become anxious, that is our internal warning system telling us to get going on the work.”
In short, Damour says stress and anxiety are gifts that evolution has given us to clue us in to danger in our surroundings, and we could be setting ourselves up for more pain if we avoid them instead of listening to them.
Avoiding Anxiety Isn’t Always a Good Idea
For example, psychologists generally agree that avoidance anxiety — that is, the anxiety we feel when we avoid things we need to do — is often worse than the very thing we are avoiding. We may think that the task at hand is causing anxiety, but it’s likely the avoidance that feels worse. In this way, even though our feelings may not be pleasant, they are communicating important information to us, information that can help us live a more fulfilled life in the long term.
Anxiety and Stress Can Indicate Moments of Growth
One of Damour’s central arguments is that we should embrace temporary bouts of stress and anxiety as signs that we are stretching ourselves to grow and achieve new things.
“When we are able to weather stressful events, we actually build our ability to do things we could not do before,” she says. “And we also are more resilient when faced with new difficulties. Once we’ve gone through a difficult experience successfully, it actually makes us more resilient when new difficulties arise.”
Not All Stress and Anxiety Are Good
And while Damour is emphatic that we shouldn’t expect every waking moment of our lives to be spent in blissful happiness, she’s careful to point out that we probably shouldn’t feel stressed and anxious all the time, either. In short, not all types of stress and anxiety are helpful.
“Both stress and anxiety can cross the line from healthy to unhealthy. Stress that is chronic or traumatic is unhealthy,” she says. “If a person is anxious all the time for no reason or if their body basically goes to DEFCON 1 over minor concerns, that’s something we do not consider to be healthy anxiety,” she adds.
How to Tell When Stress and Anxiety Are Unhealthy
So how can you tell the difference between anxiety and stress that drive us to be better and anxiety and stress that are ruining our lives?
Damour says the key is to think about mental health in the same way we think about physical health. After all, physically healthy people can and often do become terribly ill. For example, getting the flu doesn’t mean you are an unhealthy person, it just means you got sick for a little while.
Similarly, periods of stress and anxiety don’t necessarily mean that your mental health is in bad shape.
“The distinction between someone who is healthy and someone who is not healthy is the capacity to recover,” says Damour. “People who are mentally healthy sometimes have periods of extraordinary stress, or sometimes have moments when they feel intensely anxious, so one of the questions that we want to ask is: Are they able to recover?”
For Damour, this is the key: Unless we are living with chronic or debilitating stress and anxiety, these feelings are not going to hurt us in the long run, so when we experience them, we can take the opportunity to act on them and embrace the challenges in front of us.