Social Anxiety Help
Larry Cohen, LICSW
The Purpose of Anxiety
In order to understand and overcome our problems with social anxiety or other forms of anxiety, we need to understand what anxiety is, and most importantly, what is its purpose.
Yes, anxiety has a useful purpose. An essential purpose. We wouldn’t be able to function well if we didn’t experience anxiety at all. That may be hard to believe given that anxiety has probably caused you a great deal of suffering, and has probably inhibited your life in so many ways. But it’s true!
To understand the purpose of anxiety, let’s look first at what is meant by anxiety. The problem is that the word “anxiety” is used to mean many different things. In day-to-day usage, “anxiety” is usually used to refer to an uneasy or fearful feeling, such as nervousness. Sometimes “anxiety” is used to mean fear in anticipation of a potential danger, as opposed to fear in the face of present danger. Freudian or other psychodynamic therapists think of anxiety as the feeling resulting from an internal struggle between opposing feelings, drives and values. And least consistent of all, “anxious” is often used to mean something altogether different: “eager” (as in “I’m anxious for the show to get started.”)
Try to drop all of the above usages for now, and think of anxiety in the following way:
Anxiety is our innate response to perceived danger.
First of all, anxiety in this sense is not just a feeling. Anxiety is a response that includes feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and physiological changes. Nor is there a single feeling associated with the anxiety response. Some form of fear (eg. anything from nervousness to panic) is perhaps the most common feeling related to anxiety. But other very different feelings are often associated with the anxiety response, such as anger, embarrassment and sadness.
Secondly, anxiety is innate, or inborn. We are all “hardwired” with an anxiety mechanism. In fact, so are most animals.
Looking at anxiety as our response to perceived danger, the purpose of the anxiety response become obvious: self-protection.
Presumably, animals with an effective anxiety response were more likely to survive various dangers (eg. being eaten) than were animals with no anxiety response–or with an ineffective one that didn’t protect so well. It is easy to see how the anxiety mechanism is an adaptive response that has evolved over time to help us survive in the face of danger.