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Did You Know Anxiety Can Enhance Our Relationships?

Feelings of worry and vulnerability can be a superpower.

Key points

  • Everyone feels anxious from time to time.
  • Learning to accept your anxiety is the first step in moving past these feelings.
  • Anxiety can help us thrive by improving our emotional awareness of others.
  • Taking the focus off ourselves and noticing the needs of others can help reduce anxious feelings.

Even after Valentine’s Day has long since passed, many of us worry about our relationships with others. What can we do with these uncomfortable feelings of angst?

Anxiety of all types is omnipresent in the modern world, and the search is on for a cure in popular culture. The headlines scream: “Stop worrying with this new medication—breathing exercise—activity—food—mindset.”

However, let’s face it. Most of these approaches don’t work to eliminate anxiety.

This is because, unless you’re in a coma, you’ll never fully escape feelings of anxiety—they are part of the universal human experience.

Once we accept that fact, however, a solution to anxiety becomes apparent: Anxiety is not a curse, but a strength. This general truth is particularly apparent when it comes to relationship anxiety.

The Experience of Anxiety Can Enhance Connection

Anxiety can help us thrive by improving our attunement to the emotional tendencies and overall states of others.

Understanding, relating to, and managing the feelings of other people—all of which are critical skills for forging relationships—can be greatly enhanced by our own experience of anxiety. In fact, people with a history of adversity or trauma generally feel more compassion for others. This is because when we’ve felt anxious ourselves, we have a more intuitive sense of what others need when they are struggling.

Watching the Hot Dog Vendor

This points to another general truth about anxiety: When we use our anxiety to better understand the feelings of others, it helps us to manage and process our own anxious feelings.

You can reduce your anxiety by getting outside of yourself and noticing the needs of others, and then responding to them.

A few years ago, I asked about a dozen of my patients who had especially intense anxiety to gather in my New York City office, where I explained my plan. We would go outside with no other objective than to observe the people on the streets of Manhattan. We would “people watch” for one hour, with the intent of identifying the emotions of others and trying to surmise what they might need.

It was during an evening hour and there were hundreds of folks streaming around the streets: hot dog vendors and construction workers; mothers and fathers with children in tow while shopping; people walking in and out of medical offices, hotels, and public transportation. They were of all ages, diverse racial and ethnic identities, and all social classes from people driving around in limousines to homeless people living on the street. Our goal was not to interact with them or even provide for their needs in a substantive way, but simply to observe what we could about these strangers’ feelings and what might make their lives better in some way.

After observing others for an hour, we reassembled in my office and spent the next hour discussing our experiences. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the room. People were so happy to have spent a full hour getting outside of their own anxiety-filled heads, and to have given their full attention to noticing other people’s needs.

Interestingly, I found our group of anxiety patients to be particularly adept at identifying the needs of others. They had noticed the slightest details, like the grimace on the hot dog vendor’s face because it was cold and he seemed to have not sold many hot dogs, or a child smiling gleefully because she was holding her mother’s hand. They didn’t just notice a homeless guy; they saw that he was shoeless on one foot and that he had a hole in the left arm of his jacket.

I pointed out that the more detailed we are in our analysis of other people, the more we are tuned in to their experience. I also pointed out that having one’s own anxiety is a potential catalyst for noticing the struggles—and happiness—of others.

Suffering Fosters Compassion for Others

The most compassionate people I’ve ever met have gone through significant life difficulties. I would even say that many of my patients are among the most thoughtful, compassionate people I know.

Having experienced anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges can prime us to be more aware of other people’s feelings. People with intense anxiety often learn valuable interpersonal skills because of—not in spite of—their anxiety.

They are better people because of their anxiety, more compassionate, more caring, and more aware of others and their experiences. Anxiety can help us pay attention to other people’s feelings and experiences. When we use our own distress as a barometer to gauge and understand someone else’s feelings, we can enhance our connections and love. Anxiety, in helping us see and appreciate the needs of those around us, can literally make the world a better place.

Be kind to yourself. Appreciate your feelings of worry and celebrate your concern for others. It really is a superpower.

More from David H. Rosmarin Ph.D., ABPP
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