Rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, breath you just can’t catch: ​The consuming symptoms of anxiety can hit us any time – but does any good come from it? According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or ​ADAA, ​a whopping 40 million adults are affected by anxiety every year. Characterized by a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease – anxiety can be uncomfortable. So why do we have it and what is it actually doing to us?

To understand anxiety and stress it’s good to know the difference between the two. Stress is the body’s reaction to a trigger, something that’s happening now. As ​Ph.D. Debra Kissen puts it “Our brain thinks we’re in danger and needs to deal with it immediately.” People experience stress differently, but common symptoms include frequent headaches, back and/or neck pain, dizziness, sweaty palms, sleep disturbance, irritability and gastrointestinal problems. Anxiety on the other hand, although sharing many similar symptoms, isn’t quite the same. Anxiety is about the anticipation of stress; it’s what comes before. Anxiety is the ‘wake-up call’ your body gives you to avoid the stress.

Being anxious isn’t fun, but we have this innate alarm system for a reason. In times where we depended much more heavily on our natural instincts for survival, anxiety had a major role in keeping us alive. A rustling bush sets off an alarm that begins a train of wondering, “Was that the wind? Or a snake readying itself to strike?” The wondering invokes anxiety and the anxiety invokes action. Even though no danger was actually determined, the person still reacts to the situation to avoid something that could possibly cause them stress (or their life!). The result is that the person becomes more prepared – even if the danger is only present in their mind.

Although our environment has changed considerably from our hunter-gathering days, our desire to avoid stress has not. Today’s world is riddled with anxiety triggers. While most of us might not be as concerned with snakes these days; there’s plenty of things that set us off. “Are they laughing at me? – Will the roof last the winter? – Am I going to blow the presentation?” There’s still plenty of things in our life that trigger feelings of worry and fear. While anxiety can have a downright crippling effect such as hindering your home, social and work performances, this difficult emotion can have a surprisingly positive effect.

Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Charles Darwin, Oprah, (just to name a few) are all people who have famously struggled with anxiety, but that’s not all they have in common. They have all been outstandingly successful. Not only is anxiety linked to success, science shows there’s also a strong correlation between anxiety and intelligence. A 2012 ​study done by The Department of Neuroscience in New York demonstrated that people who worried more, on average had higher IQs.

Anxiety manipulates our behavior and nudges us into motion. It makes us think about things that wouldn’t otherwise cross our minds. The act of worrying motivates us to avoid stress and prepare for the future. It puts in our mind the doubt that leads us to confront our intimidating coworkers whom we’d otherwise not be brave enough to face. It causes us to go over our big speech the night before until it’s perfect. Sometimes worrying over the roof gets the call made that prevents the whole thing from caving in. Anxiety can be a useful tool that drives us to a level of preparedness and success that we wouldn’t otherwise achieve, but sometimes it can get out of hand.

When anxiety becomes stress, it can have adverse effects in our life, it can even cause physical illness​. “The trick for putting an end to our anxieties”, he suggests, “is not to stop worrying. It’s to know which things to worry about, and how much to worry about them,” Bill Gates quotes Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century on his ​blog​. When stress takes over anxiety as our main driving force: The fear of co-workers laughing at us could mean we lash out unreasonably. The presentation could be ruined when sweat pours from our face making us too uncomfortable to finish. Worrying non-stop about the roof could lead to forgetting to pay the electric bill. There seems to be a fine line between anxiety being the push that drives us to greatness and the point it becomes our undoing. Good news is, there are many natural ways to de-stress ​when anxiety gets out of hand.

While anxiety can be difficult and lead to a myriad of problems when left unchecked – it can also lead to great things. Anxiety can be what pushes us to be a great leader, it can drive us to accomplish our goals on time, be the lens that keeps things in perspective, it can inspire empathy and give rise to more creative and intelligent thinking. Anxiety can be the beginning of outstanding success.


  • Alexis Schaffer

    Expert Author

    Alexis Schaffer received her undergraduate degree in psychology and is a registered nurse. In her free time she teaches yoga and writes for various online publications. She's also the proud dog mom of a beagle named Dobby.