Too often we throw around the word anxiety, associating it with so many different situations, feelings, thoughts, and possibilities, that the word itself seems to have lost some meaning and at the same time is ever present and scary. What is anxiety? What does it mean? And why does it seem to be so frequent in our society?  These are all good questions, with answers that may seem surprising to some.

What if I told you that anxiety is meant to be a good thing? Anxiety, in a basic sense, is our body’s alarm system. It lets us know if we are in danger or if we need to act to keep ourselves safe. It is actually a very normal, physical experience (fast heartbeat, quicker respiration, perspiration) that is similar to what someone may feel after exercising. In fact, a certain dose of anxiety, mentally and physically, is healthy. Anxiety prepares us, challenges us, keeps us safe and on our toes, and helps us determine what we like (and do not like), strive for, and need.

It is when we begin to misinterpret, mislabel or even fear the experience of anxiety that it becomes a “bad thing.” Anxiety takes on many disguises in our daily lives, from fearfulness, to excess worries, to stress, to panic. Labeling anxiety freely and frequently has become a societal norm.

With so many pressures to be the best or better than the best, to juggle as many daily activities as possible, and to push the boundaries of bravery, it is not surprising that our alarms go off frequently and are often confusing to understand. However, we must ask ourselves, are these alarms real or false? Is there really any danger? Often, although our brain may initially try to convince us differently, we are experiencing false alarms, where the dangers we perceive are unlikely to actually occur or will not likely make the impact that we assume.

We must learn to recognize anxiety for what it is:  a physical experience of symptoms that can be very helpful and informative and will decrease with time. Doing so can be a game changer, making it not so scary to be anxious, but rather a normal part of life that everyone experiences to varying degrees.

In turn, we can better manage our anxiety by making better decisions about whether the anxiety we feel is helpful or unhelpful, necessary or excessive and in either case, understanding that the physical feeling is not harmful and will not last forever. Anxiety may look different to different people, but in the end, it is a healthy part of being alive and can be an asset if used as originally intended.