Good vs. Bad Anxiety, and When to Seek Help

Jennifer Yalof, M.Ed.

What is Anxiety?

Psychologist and researcher David Barlow, PhD, defined anxiety as a “future-oriented mood state in which one is ready or prepared to attempt to cope with upcoming negative events.” Along with mood, anxiety tends to incorporate physiological symptoms, such as sweaty palms and a quickened heart rate.  For some, this negative event may be a reality such as preparing to cope with the impending loss of a loved one. For others, this negative event may be an assumed situation which may or may not occur. For example, a job applicant preparing for a job interview he or she fears will go wrong. No matter the situation, these individuals are experiencing some state of anxiety. Another way to think about anxiety is through theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of existential anxiety as “the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing.” He divided existential anxiety into three categories: ontic (fate and death), moral (guilt and condemnation), and spiritual (emptiness and meaninglessness).

Good vs. Bad

In healthy doses, anxiety is a necessary part of life. It makes us alert to when we are in danger (hearing an intruder break into the house) and hopefully helps us take action (calling 911). In less dangerous situations, it may alert us that we need to prepare for something that is going to happen soon, such as a job interview. As a result of anxiety, you might research the company that is interviewing you. Some anxiety may be more consuming. This can happen when someone gets an unwelcome medical diagnosis. You may ask yourself, “why me?” or, “how will my loved ones react?” These are both very common and important questions, and can be scary to think about.  Some anxious feelings may encourage you to attend your doctor appointments, change your diet, or comply with medications. These are all examples of healthy, even unavoidable anxiety, and demonstrate that while anxiety may not be a pleasant experience, it is a human experience.

There may be times where a person experiences anxiety as being unhealthy. For example, a month after calling 911 following a home invasion, you find that you are still thinking about it. You might notice that your anxious thoughts feel intrusive, and you have a difficult time shutting them off. Cancelling your job interview because you feel anxious is another example of anxiety that is damaging to your daily life. You may also experience a panic attack (difficulty breathing, quickened heart-rate, wondering if you are having a heart-attack), which is a scary experience related to anxious thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, people feel unable to pinpoint exactly what is causing the anxiety, while others feel that everything causes anxiety.

Of course, labeling anxiety as either “good” or “bad” can be limiting, and anxiety is certainly on a spectrum. To figure out whether or not you might need some professional help, ask yourself, “is this anxiety interfering with my everyday life?”  If the answer is yes, then it might be a good idea to begin to think about seeking help.

How to Treat Anxiety

An article from the humor magazine The Onion joked about the treatment of anxiety in the article “Anxiety Resolved by Thinking About it Real Hard.” The article went on to say that “the more you obsessively worry about something bad that has already happened or about something bad that may happen in the future, the better you’ll feel.” Although the article is in jest, some people might find themselves doing just that; if you are over thinking it, then maybe you will find a solution to your problems and feel less anxious. While this may be the case for some situations, it may not be for others. Anxiety can become a serious problem and some may find it crippling.

Therapy: Some people benefit from the combination of both therapy and medication. Should you consider seeking treatment for anxiety in the form of therapy, note that different therapists adhere to different schools of thought.  For example, some may use a cognitive behavioral approach (examining how our thoughts affect our behavior), a psychodynamic approach (more emphasis on how our past experiences shape our present behavior), or a little of both. Other examples of treatment include mindfulness based activities such as meditation and yoga.

Medication: According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America,  medication can be used for the treatment of different anxiety disorders. For example, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) can be used for the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) while Serotonin-Noreprinephreine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) may be appropriate for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, may be more appropriate for the short-term treatment of anxiety. Please note that some of these medications might have an addictive quality, so be sure you are educated and talk with your primary care provider or psychiatrist about this risk.


American Depression and Anxiety Association. Retrieved from

Barlow, David H. (2000). Unraveling the mysteries of anxiety and its disorders from the perspective of emotion theory. American Psychologist, 55(11), 1247–63.

The Onion. (May 23, 2013). Issue 49.21. Retrieved from:,32555/?ref=auto

Tillich, P. (1952). The Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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