The Intelligence of Anxiety.

Via Ian Andersen
on Jun 7, 2013
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I recently read an article linking high levels of anxiety with a high IQ, which made me think, “What is the intelligence of our anxiety?”

To better explore this topic, it is essential to understand what anxiety is and how it works.

Understanding Our Anxiety defines anxiety as, “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

This is a relatively good definition, and something that I am certain almost all of us can relate to. I would add that the frustrating aspect of anxiety is that it’s intrusive, preventing us from accomplishing what we want from our lives.

Not only does anxiety manifest highly undesirable emotional responses, we often respond in physical ways: we begin to sweat, our stomachs churn and suddenly we can’t think or speak clearly.

Our ability to feel this anxiety evolved for a reason. It kept us alive. The problem today is that our anxiety often occurs in the face of unrealistic, or in the absence of, true threats.

So what do we do about it? Let us first explore our negative coping patterns.

False Defenses

When we feel anxious, the first thought we often have is, “How do I get rid of this?”

Of course, we want to be rid of our anxiety, as we discussed above, because all of these physical and mental symptoms are horribly unpleasant!

The problem with attempting to rid ourselves of anxiety is that anxiety triggers our “fight or flight” response, which often causes us to engage in a multitude of false coping mechanisms, all of which can be categorized as one of the following false coping mechanisms:

  1. Shutting down, or ignoring our anxiety
  2. Fighting our anxiety
  3. Externalizing our anxiety

I would love to talk to someone who has been successful in using any of these strategies in dealing with their anxiety. When we engage in any of these above behaviors, we are not actually dealing with the problem; we are just hoping to get rid of the problem as fast as possible. But none of these coping mechanisms work.

So, how do we deal with anxiety?

Now that we have explored how most of us tend to fight against and effectively increase our anxiety levels, what can we actually do to help with our anxiety?

This is where it is important to recognize the intelligence of our anxiety and learn to befriend our anxiety.

We don’t have to actively invite anxiety into our lives to befriend it. Befriending our anxiety simply means learning to recognize and accept our anxiety.

Anxiety is common.

(I apologize if this makes you feel like you are no longer as unique as you thought you were, but nearly everyone experiences some type of anxiety, so we may as well accept that fact.)

The tricky and seemingly contradictory part to anxiety is that the more we try to fight it, the more it grows.

If we could see our anxiety for what it is—an evolutionary process designed to help us—we would acknowledge our anxieties and set them aside.

If it were this simple, we would all be living carefree lives doing everything we wanted to. Free from anxiety.

Often, however, we spend our entire lives building complex and negative “anxiety traps” that we wholeheartedly believe to be our truth.

Even after realizing what we have created, deconstructing and replacing these negative traps with positive and helpful beliefs takes time.

Another important concept is learning to disentangle our sense of self from our anxiety. Anxiety is so powerful that we often use statements such as “I am anxious” or “I am an anxious person.”

Using these statements, we identify fully with our anxiety.

Instead, use this statement, “I feel anxious.”

While seemingly subtle, this begins the process of detaching anxiety from how we define ourselves, leading us to more easily work with our anxiety, because it is much easier to work with something when it is not a defining part of our identity.

Working with our anxiety often begins with a gentle yet progressive process of building up our courage by starting small and moving forward, a process greatly assisted through therapy and beginning a mindfulness practice.




Relephant Read: 

8 Natural Tips for Coping with Anxiety.



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Assistant Ed: Paula Carrasquillo/Ed: Bryonie Wise

{Image: via Surrealism on Pinterest}


About Ian Andersen

Ian Andersen lives and works in Boulder, CO.  He is a psychotherapist working mostly with adolescents and young adults struggling with addiction.  He loves the challenge of assisting young adults and bringing out the inherent wisdom in adolescents.  He draws a great deal from Buddhist mindfulness practices in his work. Learn more about Ian on his website.


12 Responses to “The Intelligence of Anxiety.”

  1. Irked says:

    "(I apologize if this makes you feel like you are no longer as unique as you thought you were, but nearly everyone experiences some type of anxiety, so we may as well accept that fact.)"
    Condescending much? This statement negates anything valid you wanted to contribute. Anxiety is no joke and you obviously have no clue of how it can debilitate people if can casually throw this snide comment out from atop your hill of wisdom. I don't recall Buddhism requiring such lack of humility.

  2. Reddit says:

    You took this straight from the reddit discussion, here is the author's response:

    "Ouch. ;). But in all seriousness, my intention was not to be condescending, but I can certainly see how it could come across like that. To be honest and to add a bit of self-disclosure, I have struggled with anxiety my entire life, so I absolutely understand how debilitating it can be and I would definitely not want to minimize or invalidate that experience.
    My understanding of Buddhist philosophy is that it is fallacious to see it simply as a way to seek happiness, but is instead a systematic method of attempting to understand and experience all of life's experiences, whether positive or negative. In this manner, my intention was to make it quite clear that anxiety is a common experience, and it seems that I succeeded in doing so, however I also came across as judgmental and condescending which was not my intention. I have to remember that when writing, people cannot always understand my intentions unless written very clearly, I will take this feedback into account in future articles, thank you!"

  3. N West says:

    In addition to identifying feelings "I feel anxious", I find it helpful to identify my need: communication with a loved one; respect; order and or structure (there are many needs – see Compassionate Communication or Non-Violent Communication).
    High anxiety individuals probably experienced one or more difficult situations as a child. Also certain temperaments
    may experience the same type of situations and some respond with increased anxiety. The free floating generalized anxiety in adulthood can be quite exhausting – it requires "attention" and commitment to change behavior and learn strategies that work. I started with acknowledging that I am a highly anxious person that coped for many decades through creative, productive work. Now I seek greater peace of mind through self-compassion and meditative practice.
    Thank you for your contribution.

  4. Kristina S. says:

    Have you considered writing a book on the subject? I found this article fascinating and would like to learn more.

  5. Jaime says:

    I think we should take some steps back analyzing the root problem. If we have a survival instinct and it is being triggered, then we need to address the aspects triggering it, don't we? Civilization is coming with a high cost for us, instinct is telling us several things we have to suppress, such as "mate all you can", "eat all you can", "fight to survive" and so forth. Something is not completely right with the way civilization works today…

  6. Heidi says:

    I agree with you, Jamie. Our brains and bodies are not biologically programmed with the capacity to endure and digest many of the high stressors that we encounter in our daily environments, and throughout our society. The prominent high levels of anxiety that exist in our modern world most likely is our bodies way of telling us that our lifestyles are more than our body and mind can handle at times.

    I believe through a healthy diet, an active lifestyle, and maintaining spiritual and mental heath, anxiety can be controllable.

  7. jason says:

    I am curious about the study that you mention at the beginning of the article.

  8. This is an excellent piece that I identify with deeply. Well done 🙂

  9. I've found the idea of mindfulness more of a hindrance. I suffer such high anxiety levels, connected with mental activity levels, in spite of (or maybe because of) my mindfulness training, that a kind of healing trance therapy with soothing affirmations is the remedy of choice. My physical symptoms get so bad that this is what really helps. Sitting & watching the mind churn is NOT what brings me down in the positive sense. I know what I'm afraid of… I need some kind of bhakti yoga or relaxed mindfulness. Some kind of real soothing surrender.

  10. CFoley says:

    Thank you Ian for this great piece. Like another person said, when is the book coming out?? For many years I've approached the anxiety I feel with the mindset that it holds intelligence or that it is my body's first warning signal. It has helped me a good deal, but I would love to learn more from others' experiences and hear what practices people are using. Specifically, when the anxiety is too overwhleming it is difficult to find intelligence in it. It is as if it has take off on its own and I need to let it run its coure before I can befriend it again. This often happens when I've ignored earlier, milder signalrs of anxiety. So, obviously, I need to listen to it earlier 🙂

  11. Jen says:

    Well that was disappointingly anticlimactic. Perhaps it was geared toward everyday suffers of general, low level anxiety. Not those suffering with the tragically all-consuming, suck the air out if your lungs and hyper sensitive every nerve in your body and cell in your brain suffers.

    Were I to be asked the audience or point of that little article, Id be left shrugging my shoulders. If there's fifty shades of anxiety I think you touched on the far left, almost off-white side. Sorry.

  12. Key says:

    There are degrees of Anxiety, some people might be "Anxious" before making a speech, or standing in front of a large audience. It's different than suffering from Anxiety through work, or through various other situations. What your comment ignores is that there are levels. It oversimplifies. Having the "darker" end of the spectrum isn't about feeling "Special", it's just looking for understanding. So yeah, might want to re-word it and think deeper next time.