That chewed-up pencil might be a sign that you’re a little anxious, and that’s OK. (Photo: Getty Images)
“I wish I was more anxious,” said no one, ever — but new research has found that having some anxiety is actually good for you.
For the study, scientists from France’s PSL Research University and Pierre and Marie Curie University analyzed electrical signals in the brains of 24 volunteers as they looked at digitally altered faces that expressed anger or fear. A total of 1,080 trials were carried out, and the results were published in the journal eLife.
Here’s what researchers discovered: People who are anxious perceive threats in different regions of the brain from those who are more laid-back. Those regions are also responsible for action, making it more likely that anxious people can react better to a crisis situation than those who aren’t anxious.
Scientists also found that people with nonclinical anxiety (meaning they haven’t been diagnosed with anxiety by a doctor) are especially good at being ready to take action in the face of a threat.
Lead study author Marwa El Zein, PhD, tells Yahoo Health that she was surprised by her findings. “For the first time, they reveal that brain regions related to action process social threats in very fast and automatic fashion,” she says. “These regions are particularly involved in individuals that are highly anxious.”
As a result, she says, anxious people may “be able to react swiftly and efficiently when faced with dangerous situations.”
Got a little anxiety? Don’t sweat it. “A little bit of anxiety is good for all of us — and that’s fortunate, since we all brush up against anxiety,” Reid Wilson, PhD, adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and author of Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks, tells Yahoo Health.
El Zein and her team didn’t study people who have a psychiatric history of anxiety, so she’s not sure if suffering from the condition could also make people better able to react to crisis situations.
Related: Natural Ways to Beat Anxiety
Of course, anxiety is a normal part of life and can even be a helpful motivator. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it can develop into a disorder when the feeling doesn’t go away, gets worse with time, or interferes with daily life.
“We all have a sweet spot where the right amount of anxiety keeps us alert, thinking of future possibilities, and moving along in our problem-solving,” licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, tells Yahoo Health. “Too little anxiety can leave us unaware of important problems and unmotivated to protect the things we care about, and too much anxiety can be overwhelming, making it hard to channel it into productive action.”
Basically, suffering from anxiety that is excessive and long-lasting isn’t a good thing. But if you occasionally worry about making work deadlines or whether you’ll avoid the flu this season, you might actually be doing yourself a favor.