Does Anxiety Serve a Purpose or Function?

Purpose of Anxiety

Anxiety can be a really distressing and debilitating thing to experience, and can seem like only a bad thing when we are caught in the middle of it, but is there a deeper purpose or meaning behind anxiety? Can it ultimately serve a good purpose for us?

The short answer is yes! Whilst often unpleasant to experience at the time, anxiety can ultimately be seen as a motivator and facilitator of change in your life which is ultimately positive and beneficial if you heed it’s messages.

To summarize the purpose and function of anxiety, we will borrow the idea of new age thinker Ian Heath, who very precisely and succinctly nailed the issue. His old site, Discover Your Mind, has sadly been taken down now, but it was a brilliant resource on depth psychology, self awareness and psychoanalysis.

Thankfully some of his work has been reproduced on some other sites. Here is how he summarized the meaning and purpose of anxiety:

  • The meaning of anxiety is that it eliminates complacency.
  • The purpose of anxiety is that it facilitates change.

Ian Heath – see here

Let’s break down each of these points to see in more detail what he means by each of those statements.

Anxiety as a Remover of Complacency

Starting with the first point – anxiety as a remover of complacency – this inteprets anxiety as a signal or motivator to change your life patterns and habits in a way that better serves you in the long run in getting you where you want to go.

Put differently, if you are experiencing anxiety and not where you want to be in life, ask yourself the question:

“Is what I am doing right now (or the way I am living) moving me towards the person I want to be and the lifestyle I want to have? If the answer is no, then modify your behavior and habits so that more of what you are doing is moving you more in line with where you want to go. Discard some activities, habits and routines which are not moving you towards this”

Put even more simply, one could say anxiety is in some cases a kick in the backside to say “Stop messing about and get back on track with where you want to go!”

The person has in some way become complacent in their habits or lifestyle, in a way which is stopping them getting where they want to go.

Perhaps they have either taken on bad habits, or have stopped practising good habits or self care, and the anxiety acts as a reminder to get them back on track with working towards a lifestyle more harmonious to their sense of self.

Here is an example of how this can play out:

Example #1 – You may have had a stretch of being unemployed, but during this you try removing all distractions (TV, drinking, video games, social media etc) and work towards other things (building blogs etc.) and meditating daily as a way of improving calmness. You get a job, but because it has been a while since you last worked officially, there is an anxiety that still comes up.

At first, you ignore this and go back to a “work-play” based lifestyle – you get the games console back out, watch TV again, stop building your blogs, and stop meditating. You think you are “sorted” now because you have some money coming in to support yourself. You go back to that old lifestyle of alternating between work and play.

The anxiety however continues to worsen after you do this. The anxiety here is a warning from inside you that you need to get back on top of managing your internal states and looking after yourself.

It eliminates the complacency of slipping back into old habits without enough self care alongside it.

You back away from the distractions (you don’t always need to eliminate them entirely) and get back on meditation and other methods to increase your calmness and manage the anxiety again.

Your focus moves back onto doing things which keep your anxiety under control and other self care (exercise, diet, good sleep, meditation). All other leisurely distractions come secondary. You get back to looking after yourself rather than only a binary work-play lifestyle.

In this way, anxiety can be seen as an internal signal and guide, warning you that you have slipped or “taken your foot off the gas” in some way in terms of working towards something or looking after yourself. It can give you the impetus you need to get back on top of this and remove distractions and non useful stuff from your life.

“Anxiety keeps a person de-stabilised…..Therefore it provides the psychological spur for us to generate our ideals and to achieve something in life. Most ideas of a good life are generated as antidotes to an anxiety-ridden conventional life”

Ian Heath – see here.

Anxiety as a Facilitator of Change

Turning to the second point of anxiety – that it faciliates change – could really be seen as a way of re-stating the first point in some sense. Anxiety can be seen as a signal telling you that something in your life needs to change.

At low to moderate levels, anxiety can be seen as a signal to “get back on” something as we mentioned above. It is about structuring your life to reduce and manage this anxiety until it lessens.

In more extreme cases however, then anxiety can well up to a point where it is so intense and visceral that no amount of management through mindfulness or other methods will make it go away.

This kind of anxiety often literally does not got away until you pro-actively do something to change your immediate environment or circumstances – most often, getting out of a certain job or getting away from a certain person or group of people right away.

This kind of anxiety could be seen as a shout or scream from the deepest part of yourself, telling you that something needs to change fundamentally, right now, in your life. It is a signal that you are not where you need to be in a very extreme way, and need to take action immediately to resolve something toxic or dysfunctional in your life.

As the saying goes in some circles of therapy and self help – “Your body never lies”. Severe anxiety is a very clear message from your body that something in your life is off and needs to change.

Here are a couple of examples of this.

Relationships – Severe anxiety in a toxic relationship – a signal you are with the wrong person and need to get out. Sometimes simply getting away can get rid of this. Other times the anxiety may persist, which is a sign that the relationship has traumatized you and you need to resolve this to resolve the anxiety which stems from it. See the section below for some ways to do this – EMDR is one of the best options.

Jobs #1 – Severe, unbearable and unmanageable anxiety when starting a new job. Often a sign that you are simply in the wrong job and need to get out ASAP. I have had this experience personally with call centre jobs. Every part of my body was basically screaming at me to get out, and when I did, the anxiety went away very quickly.

Jobs #2 – Workplace bullying and politics can also get to some people and leave them with an anxiety that keeps ramping up and up. Initially people may try and fight it and think they are OK, with certain excuses and justifications (I can manage it, I need the money, I can’t just leave without another job etc).

In more severe cases, intense anxiety can simply be a signal that something needs to very drastically change in your immediate environment and circumstances.

However, eventually, the politics and bullying may reach a crisis point where your anxiety is sky high and unbearable – again screaming at you to get out as soon as possible regardless of the consequences.

Once you do, it often dissipates very quickly. Again, however unpleasant at the time, this kind of anxiety is actually a protective part of you that’s getting you out of toxic situations for your own good.

Neurotic vs Authentic Anxiety

Where do you draw the line though between anxiety which should be managed and reduced, versus anxiety which is simply a signal you need to get out or get away from a situation or person/group?

This is not a question that is easily answered. It is up to the individual to do everything within their power to manage the anxiety which comes up, using the methods we are about to list below.

If all these methods fail, or the anxiety is simply too intense to focus on anything, then this is more a sign that you simply need to change something more fundamentally in your life or current situation.

This distinction between different types of anxiety could be phrased as neurotic anxiety and authentic anxiety, with neurotic anxiety being something which stems from something unresolved in you, which you have the power to control, manage and explore, versus authentic anxiety, which is simply a kind if internal scream which won’t go away until you change something in your immediate life right now.

Ways of Dealing With Anxiety

Here are some common ways of dealing with anxiety. Each method may be more or less useful depending on the circumstances and the intensity of the anxiety.

1. EMDR & Bilateral Stimulation – Using Bilateral Stimulation under the framework of Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR), either with a therapist or self administered, can be a great way of calming an overactive and ruminative mind that often accompanies anxiety, as well as quietening heightened states of physiological arousal that anxiety often brings.

The EMDR method can also be great at addressing any underlying unresolved trauma which is driving the anxiety. In other words, you seem to get anxiety in certain situations, which stems from some previous event from earlier in life which is not in your current awareness.

EMDR therapy can help root out these early experiences and process them to resolution, greatly reducing or eliminating the anxiety which stems from them.

See here for our article on self administering bilateral stimulation and EMDR as a way of calming anxiety, as well as our article specifically on whether EMDR can help with anxiety.

2. Mindfulness – Mindfulness meditation is a fantastic resource to manage lower level and moderate anxiety and keep it under control. Doing mindfulness breathing exercises and body scans can be a great way of bringing yourself out of your head (rumination and overthinking) and back into your body and the present moment.

See our mindfulness resources page, which has a great introductory set of meditations to get you started with mindfulness for managing anxiety.

3. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – ACT is generally considered one of the better forms of psychotherapy for treating anxiety. Has elements of mindfulness in it in terms of paying attention to moment to moment internal feelings and sensations.

See here, here and here for some introductory videos explaining what ACT is and how it works.

4. Psychoanalytic Therapies – This could be the classic Freudian psychoanalysis, but really broadly includes any form of psychotherapy which penetrates more deeply into the mind and makes the unconscious conscious.

EMDR for example follows this pattern of retrieving and processing repressed memories. This is in contrast to frameworks like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which aim to challenge and reshape beliefs, but do not tend to penetrate very deeply into the subconscious mind.

Broadly speaking, the goal of any psychoanalysis is the intentional removal of anxiety from the mind. In this sense, enlisting the help of a well trained and well read psychoanalytic therapist may be a good longer term solution to greatly reduce or eliminate anxiety altogether, rather than simply managing it with other methods like mindfulness.


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