The Purpose of Anxiety

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.

The Purpose of Anxiety

Perception is the Starting Point

Fight, Flight or Freeze

When Dangers are Social

Social Anxiety Does Not Equal Introversion

Social Anxiety Triggers

Biology, Social Anxiety and Medication

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Social Anxiety


If you have any questions or comments, please email Larry Cohen, LICSW, with offices in Washington, DC.

Social Anxiety Help is a founding regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC):