High on Anxiety — Or Just Terrified?

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Do some people need to feel anxious? Is it an addiction, a comfort, or just a crippling affliction? Is there a way of finding out what we really need and like, when free of the constant worry and fear?

Anxiety can be a crippling condition. When we are chronically anxious, it affects pretty much every second of the day, isolating us by concentrating all our attention on our own unpleasant sensations or worries, which are uncontrollable and quite out of proportion to the actual situation.

A recent Newsweek article called “High on Anxiety” referred to research suggesting that people can actually feel a need for anxiety, which, the author points out, is not the same as liking it. For some people the need for anxiety is something like an addiction, for some it has a comforting familiarity about it — it is simply the only way of functioning they have ever known.

This made me wonder about how ‘needs’ can get in the way of finding out what we ‘like’ and choosing to live in ways which we like, which feel in tune with us.

It seems to me that our most basic need is a need for safety and security. On a physical level this means survival, having a supply of food and water and shelter; on an emotional level, which is very close behind in vital importance for survival, it is a close, reliable bond with at least one other. The baby needs a carer or it will die. We do not entirely forget about this state of helplessness and need when we grow up. And of course we do not become any less dependent on food, water, shelter and emotional connection. To varying extents, depending on how we were cared for as we grew up and what happened to us, and especially when in stressful situations as adults, we are bound to experience anxiety. You could say we would be crazy not to — or, at the least, not very aware of our fragile position in the world.

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However, ‘hooking onto’ anxiety in an attempt to keep ourselves safe can become a habit. It’s quite common to worry about something ‘on purpose’ so that the feared thing won’t actually happen — and in a more extreme form obsessive rituals may have to be carried out in order to prevent disaster. Habits in themselves also make us feel safe. Added to this can be a sense of identity: “I’m a worrier, I always have been”, a well-defined role in relationships (e.g., the ‘mother hen’ whose terrified reaction to her children’s exploits can always be predicted, or the children of those mother hens — who have often been bathed in anxiety from birth and go on to perpetuate it).

Anxiety can be defined in many different ways. The DSM, or psychiatrist’s ‘Bible’, includes post traumatic stress, panic, phobias (including social phobia) and obsessive compulsive disorders as anxiety disorders.

I am guessing that the anxiety referred to in the Newsweek article as a ‘need’ and possible resource for people when facing challenging tasks, is what the DSM would refer to as “generalised anxiety” — defined as excessive anxiety and worry, difficulties in controlling them, and three of the following symptoms: restlessness, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension and sleep disturbances.

It is hard to imagine how any of the above-mentioned symptoms could help anyone to perform a task better. I wonder if ‘anxiety’ here might not be more to do with an adrenaline-high state — a kind of slightly disconnected high-energy state which is characterised more by an absolute concentration on the task in hand, to the exclusion of the rest of the world. (I wrote about the helpful effects of adrenaline for some people in a previous post: “Adrenaline and Creativity”.) Sufferers of chronic anxiety are more likely to experience being unable to concentrate, the feeling of a woolly or blank mind.

So if we do get stuck in anxiety — feeling as if we need to worry, need the state of restlessness, and we actively resist any kind of relaxation — this means we have become very reliant on our own way of functioning, we know it well, we know how we can use it to help as well as hinder us.

But based on my own experience as a therapist, I would say that this need for anxiety masks fear, and once we acknowledge the fear and come to feel a little safer in the world, however that might happen — a spiritual discovery, a change in relationships, an new ability to relax — we can then discover which bits of the ‘anxiety’ we truly like. (Of course I only see the people who feel their anxiety to be a problem so my experience is skewed.) Maybe we still like to stay up all night doing something we love fairly obsessively, maybe we always have energy to burn and racing thoughts, maybe we still need to tell people to be careful too many times just because we love them. But it surely feels different when our personal quirks are not based on a constant sense of deep, uncontrollable fear.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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