Meet anxiety, your new superpower.
Wait, what? I know — I can hear the record scratch from here. For years we’ve been told that chronic anxiety is a problem and is responsible for many of the “lifestyle” diseases of our modern world. And make no mistake: Generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder are no joke (says the girl who’s gone to the ER no less than four times because of panic attacks). But it turns out that having hair-trigger nerves may not be all bad. In fact, according to new research from France, anxiety-induced hyper-vigilance can be a gift.
The problem with our current view of anxiety is that we often forget where it comes from, according to the study, and that it once started out as an adaptive response. The jagged-edged emotion put our bodies on full alert, allowing early humans to sense danger and fight or flee before we were killed.
“Such quick reactions could have served an adaptive purpose for survival,” said lead author Dr. Marwa El Zein from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research. “For example, we evolved alongside predators that can attack, bite or sting. A rapid reaction to someone experiencing fear can help us avoid danger.”
Sure, having a huge reaction to a cobra seems legit. But do we really need this in our modern lives? Absolutely, El Zein said. While the actual threats are different — muggers in Puma sneaks instead of actual pumas, say — they’re still very real and still require a quick response.
Thankfully our brains are up to the challenge. The researchers found that highly anxious subjects were able to ascertain a threatening face in a crowd in under 200 milliseconds, long before their conscious mind could be aware of it, and much faster than their more laid-back counterparts. And reactions were even faster if the threatening face was looking in the subject’s direction. And this act-first, think-later instinct is exactly what anxiety does for us.
The effect was so strong that it led the researchers to call it a “sixth sense.” I can see how that would work. Remember the U.S. servicemen who tackled a would-be terrorist on a Paris train just seconds after he emerged from a bathroom holding an automatic weapon, saving hundreds of lives? The men reported that they reacted instinctively to the threat, pinning the man down almost before other passengers realized what was happening. While their quick reaction is certainly a testament to their military training, the scientists would say that anxiety also surely played a role by keeping the men alert.
As I read this research it occurred to me that maybe this isn’t just a Special Forces kind of skill. Could it be that us regular folk don’t need military training to learn to use anxiety as a tool but rather just permission to see it as a feature instead of a flaw? I’ve spent years trying to subdue my crazy anxiety, but perhaps the key, like with any good superpower, is to learn to fine-tune it. It’s not bad that you and I are anxious — we just need to learn how to channel our anxiety into appropriate directions. And perhaps that starts with something as simple as seeing it as protective instead of painful.