Anxiety: Friend or Foe?

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In this week’s TIME cover story, available to subscribers here, we ask the question, Is anxiety really all that bad for you?

Few among us haven’t laid awake at night, staring at the ceiling as the worries start to crowd our minds — from unpaid bills to the unstable economy to a loved one’s recent cancer diagnosis. We know how anxiety feels, and it doesn’t feel good.

Stress causes the heart to beat faster, the palms to sweat, and the senses to switch into overdrive — for most of us, anxiety can be mentally and physically draining. And when the stresses of our personal, family and work lives start to mount, it can feel like we’ve slipped into a state of chronic anxiety, in which the stress never seems to stop.

But talk to people who often have to put everything on the line — firefighters, live performers, surgeons, elite athletes — and you’ll hear a different story. For them, anxiety is less an unwelcome foe than a familiar friend, a force that in just the right amounts can help them achieve great things. In their hands, anxiety is a critical ingredient to being and functioning at their best.

The difference, mental health experts are beginning to learn, may have to do with how we respond to the stresses in our lives. Researchers are starting to distinguish between “challenge” and “threat” stresses, understanding that if we treat stress as a difficult but manageable challenge, it can turn anxiety into a benefit — fueling a particularly passionate performance by an actor, for example, or a record-setting race by an athlete. But if we feel helpless and unable to cope with stress, anxiety becomes more of a threat that only wears on our bodies.

The key isn’t simply to not to feel anxious. Rather, it’s to learn ways to manage the experience. “Anxiety itself is neither helpful nor hurtful,” says Sally Winston, codirector of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. “It’s your response to your anxiety that is helpful or hurtful.” Of course, most of the time, it feels as though our brain makes that choice by itself, without ever consulting us. What we need to learn to stay calm and well is how we can take charge.

For tips on how to manage anxiety, subscribers can check out this helpful advice from Dr. Oz. For the full TIME cover story, “The Two Faces of Anxiety,” click here.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.