Illustration by Andrew Rae of the joy of stress
© Andrew Rae

Do you know someone with insomnia who wakes up at 4am and ends up working and reading novels and cleaning closets and cycling through anxieties until the sky turns pink? I know her and sometimes I am her.

I often hear friends and acquaintances talking about being up in the middle of the night, worrying, whirring, working. It’s not a boast but there is, to a certain extent, a personal mythology being advanced. There is a sort of counter-intuitive esprit de corps these anxious friends are tapping into. There is a definite and possibly weird element of pride.

Stress is pretty universally understood to be a bad thing, as in the most recent contribution to the conversation, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte. But is it possible that in certain segments of urban life we thrive on anxiety, are comfortable in it? Do we actually, on some strange level, enjoy and revel in it? Take the common mystery of an already jittery person reaching for yet another cup of coffee: what do they crave? What is the nature of this particular form of energy? Speedy, unreal, sickening, powerful. The tremendous artifice of that energy. The reason they are sipping that second or third coffee is that they want to be jangly. They are seeking out jangly.

I am talking here about the speedy, high-strung form of anxiety, the mind racing through a million thoughts and worries and ambitions and fears. The New York Times had until recently a series on anxiety, the heading of which claimed “nearly one in five Americans suffer from anxiety”. Some of this widespread anxiety may be clinical, a serious crippling condition that prevents its sufferers from getting out of bed and putting on their shoes. But much of it is surely a cast of mind, an atmosphere, a style.

There is a particular vitality in anxiety, a sort of nervy power that one can’t say is fun, exactly, but is nonetheless slightly addictive. It can be productive, in a crashing way. It gives us a feeling of motion, of momentum, of wheels turning. One gets used to it, maybe seeks it out. One inhabits it, sets up camp.

The influential publisher Arianna Huffington launched a whole campaign against stress. She was so concerned about the ubiquity of this social ill that she vowed to include daily posts on un-stressing in all 13 lifestyle sections of her media behemoth The Huffington Post. She used as an inspiring example an employee who successfully battled stress by stopping to gaze at a tomato plant in the concrete, urban nightmare of his life.

But is there something vaguely bovine, dull, about the state of being unstressed? Is there something slow, unfruitful, stagnant or dense about calm? You, with your fruity cocktail under the palm trees, are you boring?

One day, someone took me to a big house on the ocean. There were many decks dangling over the white sand. The waves were just outside the window and they roared into my bedroom, with its painted wooden floors. Suddenly I could sleep – nine, 10, uninterrupted hours. The children were busy with sandcastles. My computer very agreeably crashed temporarily – I told myself it was the sea air – so there was no possibility of working or communicating. I was worried about nothing. I spent hours just gazing into the waves. It was superbly soothing. But who was I?

Anxiety, I came to understand a few weeks later – slipping back into normal life, where I dress my four-year-old while he is sleeping to get him to school on time – is my identity. Is anxiety good for me? Is it perverse to thrive on it?

I was completely unprepared for the best talk I ever gave – well, I had forgotten to write down the date and remembered at the very last minute. The subject was important to me but I had not yet talked about it in public. I had nothing prepared. I was quite sensibly nervous beforehand, which I am not usually, but as I stood up in front of the crowd, the nervousness turned into pure energy; I could feel it as greater-than-usual resourcefulness, as quickness on my feet.

Apparently this is normal. In 1908, Harvard psychologists invented a thing called the Yerkes Dodson Law, proving that a moderate level of stress can actually enhance one’s performance (too much is bad, but too little is also bad. You need stress to work well). This is pretty much what we know from experience: some stress, not overwhelming, crippling waves of it, spurs you on, makes you feel alert, alive. Stress is challenge and challenge is, well, kind of a good thing, though we might prefer a lazy day in the sun.

I’ve noticed that when I am writing something that makes me nervous or uncomfortable, where I have to walk away from the screen every now and then because it’s making me feel sick, it’s always better than when I am writing calmly. When I am typing away with cool, professional detachment, what I am writing is usually sort of blah.

Kierkegaard said: “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” which gets at the very particular counter-intuitive joy of it. It is the bone-deep experience of possibility. Another way to think about this is that if you are safe, you are bored. If you feel comfortable, you lack desire. We think of stress as an unfortunate side effect of busy modern urban life; we tend to imagine that if we were all shepherds lounging with flutes in emerald grass, we would be bucolically redeemed but, in fact, stress may be a sign of engaging life fully or at least intelligently apprehending it.

The aura of calm, of contentedness does not have the same frisson as anxiety; it does not draw in or seduce with the edginess of its charm. It’s not attractive in the way that anxiety is. A Canadian psychologist, Robin Alter, who has done research on children and anxiety, observed that in anxious children, “the imaginative capacity is often more highly developed than that of calmer children”. It’s true that the child who is envisioning hundreds of red eyes in the darkness watching him or giant moving statues with teeth out of his bedroom window, is more dynamic and better company than, let’s face it, the one who is tranquilly moving a train around a track. And when you think about people who are interesting, who compel, whose conversation is beyond averagely mesmerising, they are usually highly strung. In T S Eliot’s well-known words, “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.”

Do we fall a little bit in love with our anxiety, are we attached to it? It gives a kind of sharpness, a crisp focus to our days that might otherwise be passed in a haze. Communing with phantom terrors sharpens our pleasure; it lends drama or spark to routine. An overdeveloped sense of precariousness makes you appreciate some pretty basic things. If you have clocked a few rigorous post-midnight hours colourfully elaborating the various ways you might be dying, come morning you will be over the moon pouring cereal for a child.

The truth is that crisis in general, the sense of warding off calamities, of juggling many complicated things, of being harried and hectic and stressed out, can be perversely pleasurable. People hate insomnia but there is, for those who have a lot of it, often a kind of weird secret pleasure in it too. Even though you may hate the exhaustion, you find yourself sort of savouring it, like certain kinds of hangovers: it offers its own vividness. The rawness, the strung-out-ness, the oversensitivity to the world, the ache, they are all sort of pleasing in their own dark way. They make you feel like you are intensely experiencing the hours, not just slipping through.

Of course, the anxious or stressed out would generally rather not be anxious or stressed out. They would like the problems they intricately obsess over and cycle through at 3am to be solved – but if they were, what would they do with themselves?

Take Joan Didion, the patron saint of the stylishly anxious. She writes in a tone of near-constant neurotic jitteriness, and yet the world she so gorgeously, sensitively apprehends has its own incomparable charisma. She writes, “It will perhaps suggest the mood of those years if I tell you that during them, I could not visit my mother-in-law without averting my eyes from a framed verse, the ‘house blessing’ which hung on the walls of her home in West Hartford, Connecticut. ‘God Bless this house, and be the lintels blessed/And bless the hearth, and bless the board/And bless each place of rest…’ This verse had on me the effect of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of ‘ironic’ detail the reporters would seize upon, the morning the bodies were found.”

A little twisted, yes. A little over-aware of fate’s dark possibilities. But imagine a slightly chubby, contented, becalmed Didion. The White Album would be a recipe book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem a yoga guide. All the intensely creative, elegantly expressed, culturally evocative paranoia would be lost.

My mother, a prolific writer and inventive worrier, has a scene in one of her novels where a character is overflowing with happiness on a beach. She is purely and completely elated, with her husband and children and because she is so happy, she intuitively scans the horizon for sharks. I always vowed I would not be that person but I find myself, even in my most exultant moments, looking out on a grey, foggy dawn in the city streets for sharks. The sharks, I have come to understand only just now, are part of the happiness.

Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is ‘In Praise of Messy Lives’ (Canongate, £12.99).

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