How Much Anxiety Is Good For You? (or, bad for you?)

And do anxious people tend to be unhappy in general? While pessimists’ anxiety can drive some people nuts, optimists’ seemingly perpetual cheerfulness can wear others down as well. America is a society largely geared for positive and cheerful people, at least, that’s the direction toward which we like to push each other, similar to social norms over-representing extroverts.  Many Americans like the either-or perspective, certainly preferred over single-choice or neither-nor.

Since most social issues and dynamics are not black and white, it should not surprise anyone to learn that there is an upside for pessimism. It’s called “defensive pessimism.”  It works this way: When people fear certain situations or imagine unfavorable outcomes, they intentionally prepare themselves for these “bad” things. That preparation is their defense mechanism which often allows them to perform better than if they didn’t think about the situations at all. Of course, there is another way out of feeling anxious: taking the “flight” option rather than “fight.” However, avoiding an anxious situation altogether – the flight choice — is a defeatist attitude; that’s probably the abject and ultimate pessimist. I don’t think “Extreme Pessimists” reality show would ever come to reality.

Optimist or pessimist is irrelevant when installing Mr. Dale Chihuly's glass  artwork.  Be prepare is prudent.

Optimist or pessimist is irrelevant when installing Mr. Dale Chihuly’s glass artwork. Be prepare is prudent.

Of course, when people vocalize their anxiety or worry – and if they aren’t dismissed outright as “not quite competent” — they often get the response, “Oh, think positive.” That would definitely make me feel very punchy. People feel the way they feel, they can’t really help their feeling. What they can help is letting the feeling inform them what actions to take to ameliorate the situation that causes their anxiety. Quite often, “forcing” a cheerful attitude can bring about more anxiety than sitting quietly for a while. Seriously, we can no more force a pessimist to be more cheerful than we can force a cheerful optimist to take a downer, just as we can’t force an introvert to become an extrovert or vice versa.

This doesn’t mean that people, of various natures, cannot adapt and take actions of their own volition. Public speaking is most often cited example where people’s anxiety can be managed, or even channeled into becoming helpful. The pessimists’ defense mechanisms, by conjuring images of some of the worst possible scenarios such as possibly tripping over wires, helps the person to be more attuned to what lies around on the floor. Anticipating a computer breakdown, the anxious presenter may have some props ready to continue the talk. Practicing some “gracious” responses or retorts can calm one’s nerves. And worst comes to worst, if I really “fail,” I image ways of picking myself up.

All in all, being prepared, or more prepared, isn’t a bad strategy. What’s the downside? As I hinted previously, once you voice your anxiety, some may see you in a negative light; you just supply them with additional reasons to doubt you. But even for someone like Scott Stossel, editor of the Atlantic magazine, whose severe anxiety requires medication, careful preparation including well-timed medicine administration is a silver lining. And Mr. Stossel, according to his “My Age of Anxiety,” certainly has awesome anxieties, some of which are quite bizarre, like fear of one’s own vomit. Hmmm, chew on that idea!

Pessimists do not go moping about all the time; they smile sometimes and can possess a great sense of humor. Are they happy? Do they fear happiness?  I think these are strange, and quite frankly pointless, questions. Who is happy all the time? Happiness is an emotional state, which means it is not a constant. Even “happy people” doesn’t mean that they are happy all the time. And the pessimist, when preparedness brings about great outcomes, can be euphoric.

blue boat

For me, the lessons from reading some of the articles on “defensive pessimism” are: 1. The either-or perspective ignores nuances. We don’t operate optimally on an on-and-off mode. Human beings are quite complex, politicians excluded. 2. What works well for others may not work for me. The core of understanding what would work best for you is finding that fit. Pessimists spend a lot of time and energy “over-preparing;” it works for them. Others might prefer to punt as they go along; their preferred modus operandi works for them. Why should one way be automatically and universally “better” than the other? 3. True diversity is about allowing different ways of thinking and being.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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