Throughout time, people have done whatever they could to quell anxiety. When we are anxious, we are less sure of the decisions we're making and more likely to do something to make that uncomfortable feeling go away -- even if it's dangerous or impulsive. Yet by befriending our anxiety, we may be able to live in better alignment with our own code of ethics.
Anyone who has experienced anxious emotions knows what an uncomfortable emotion it is and how tempting it is to subdue it. In an interesting article called "Worried Well," Charlie Kurth, assistant professor in philosophy at Washington University in St Louis, MO, suggests anxiety can sometimes a good thing. Anxiety can give us a warning that our current situation needs to change. Just what that change is depends on the kind of anxiety.
Kurth describes four different kinds of anxiety, all of which can be surprisingly beneficial.
- Social anxiety occurs when we are in a social setting and realize our behavior is inappropriate for the circumstance. Because we have a need to fit in and be accepted by our peers, the uncomfortable nature of social anxiety can prompt us to pay more attention to how we are perceived and to be more conscientious about how our behavior is affecting others.
I am fascinated by this concept of moral anxiety. I know people who struggle to make the right decision because of how they will be perceived by others. Unlike social anxiety, moral anxiety causes us to wonder whether our decisions are aligned with our own morals.
Here are three reasons I believe we should cultivate moral anxiety:
- Enhanced sensitivity and the ability to understand the complexity of moral dilemmas. Mark takes his aging mother Ann to her oncologist, after she was diagnosed with cancer. When her doctor suggests chemotherapy and radiation, Mark helps her research other alternative therapies because he knows Ann is against traditional treatments.
The next time you feel anxious, rather than squelching it, give some thought to the kind of anxiety you are experiencing. There may be an important message worth heeding. If your anxiety is causing you to question a moral dilemma, embrace it -- or at least be open to it. The anxiety you are experiencing may be more helpful than you realize.