Don’t worry, anxiety has its benefits

A quick internet search for book titles hints at the scale of the market in helping people become less anxious: ‘Overcome anxiety’…; ’Calming your anxious mind’…; ’What to do when you worry too much’…; ’Power over panic’ and on and on they go. But hang on a minute, it’s a dangerous world out there – what if being anxious is actually a sensible approach for staying alive?

Enter William Lee at the Institute of Psychiatry and colleagues, who used data from the Medical Research Council National Survey of Health and Development (MRC NSHD) to find out whether anxious people have fewer fatal accidents.

Using the survey to follow the fortunes of 5,362 people born in 1946, the researchers found that those individuals who had higher anxiety – as determined by the opinion of their school teacher when they were 13 – were significantly less likely to die in accidental circumstances before they were 25 (only 0.1 per cent of them did) than were non-anxious people (0.72 per cent of them did). Similar trends were observed when anxiety was measured using the teachers’ anxiety judgments when the sample were 15-years-old, or using the sample’s own completion of a neuroticism questionnaire when they were 16. By contrast, anxiety had no association with the number of non-accidental (e.g. illness-related) deaths before 25. “Our findings show, for the first time in a representative sample of humans, a relatively strong protective effect of trait anxiety”, the researchers said.

It’s not all good news for anxious people though. After the age of 25 they started to show higher mortality rates than calmer types thanks to increased illness-related deaths.

“Our results suggest there are survival benefits of increased trait anxiety in early adult life, but these may be balanced by corresponding survival deficits in later life associated with medical problems”, the researchers said.
Lee, W.E., Wadsworth, M.E.J. & Hotop, M. (2006). The protective role of trait anxiety: a longitunidal cohort study. Psychological Medicine, 36, 345-351.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.