Why We Could All Use a Little Angst

John F. Abess


Anxiety gets a bad rap. Rightfully, when it's severe, anxiety can impair our functioning, our ability to cope capably, and puts us at increased risk of having a nervous or physical breakdown (it's also a major contributor to substance abuse and addiction). So, treatment is often necessary in these cases. Generally, this "bad side of anxiety" strikes about 20 percent of us at one time or another to the extent that we seek out some form of help.   


What does this have to do with our kids, or the bus monitor bullying caught on tape? Plenty. But first, let's talk about you, and how anxiety feeds your ability to meet challenges each and every day. See, that's the good side of it. It's the lower levels of anxiety engrained in us that, for instance, get us out of bed, showered, and dressed, all in time to make our morning meeting or first commitment. Anxiety, believe it or not, prepares us to adequately meet obligations, fulfill them, and do our best. Indeed, studies have shown that successful people have the ability to postpone gratification in order to obtain what they consider a more valuable reward at some distant point in time. Anxiety about reaching that more valuable reward is part of why we can postpone immediate gratification.


What else does anxiety do? It pushes moms-to-be, worried about having healthy children, to engage prenatal care, to avoid cigarette smoke, and to not drink alcohol. Similarly, it may motivate parents to teach children not to go off with strangers and to watch both ways before deciding to cross a street. If we weren't worried about it, would we say anything at all?


Likewise, anxiety about dying prematurely and wanting to remain healthy and independent may help you decide that you need to engage in a regular exercise program. It may help you decide to choose healthier foods or eat smaller portions...  Anxiety may keep you from drinking alcoholic beverages when you know you will be driving.  Who would want the embarrassment, guilt, financial, and legal problems associated with causing an accident or getting caught?


Frankly, without anxiety to help push us along, we might lay in bed endlessly and behave rather recklessly.  


Which brings us back to the kids. There has been much talk in the news about children bullying and abusing others (surely you've seen the horrifying video of the bus monitor and her fearless middle school charges). There is a large problem in our nation’s school system pertaining to a lack of discipline, order, and manners. Often, I wonder if parents are failing to instill enough anxiety in their children. Why is it that children are not fearful of behaving unfairly, of being mean, of being disrespectful, of not completing their assignments? In addition to nurturing and love, parents also need to provide a healthy dose of intimidation. Children need to be fearful of consequences of not doing right. Indeed, they may need a proper dose of anxiety.