The Secondary Gains of Anxiety

28 June, 2020
Sometimes, it's hard to understand how something that feels so negative could have benefits. The secondary gains of anxiety are an example of that. Being anxious and staying anxious is something that some people take advantage of. Read on to learn more!

Secondary gains are what psychologists call the benefits derived from a disorder or pathology. You’re probably wondering what the benefits of anxiety are, especially if you suffer from it or know people who do. As strange as it may seem, it does have benefits. If you make a space for this unpleasant sensation and let it stay, it’s because you’re getting something out of it. Something unhealthy, obviously, but something. If that weren’t the case, it’d be much easier to find a way to free yourself from anxiety.

The fact that anxiety has its gains doesn’t mean that they’re positive for you. It just means that sometimes people do unhealthy things as a way of dealing with reality.

An example might help you understand this a lot better. Let’s say that a man loses his apartment and ends up homeless. His solution to his immediate problem is to pitch a tent in a vacant lot. If he stays there, he’ll probably look for ways to make his situation more “comfortable”.

Maybe he’ll find some cardboard to make his tent a little warmer or start to “furnish” it. Because he’s squatting on the lot, he doesn’t have to pay rent or taxes. Although the man hasn’t solved his basic housing problem, he’s still making the best of his situation in whatever way he can. The same thing happens with the secondary gains of anxiety.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, isn’t an act but a habit.”

-Aristotle-

The most common secondary gains of anxiety

It’s obvious that anxiety causes suffering. Thus, the rational thing to do is to ask for help and find a way to overcome it. However, humans aren’t rational beings. A series of unconscious factors that manifest themselves as irrational behavior can cause emotional pain. In fact, although you’re not looking to experience constant anxiety, once it’s there, unforeseen things happen.

An anxious woman experiencing secondary gains.

For example, anxious people often receive special attention from the people around them. They might consider you nervous or overly sensitive. Consequently, the unintentional benefit of anxiety is getting more attention and consideration from others. Unfortunately, that attention tends to reinforce the negative state you’re in. That’s how secondary gains work.

Attention isn’t the only thing you can gain from anxiety. It can also become an excuse to avoid facing the world, a kind of protective bubble. In addition, you can use it to avoid taking responsibility for negligence, abandonment, or apathy. People use it to justify foolish behaviors, lack of responsibility, or immaturity.

Avoiding fear and getting what you want

Sometimes, anxiety becomes the way to get exactly what you want. Being anxious is like a shield that protects you from dealing with your fears (and all human beings have to deal with their fears at some point). For example, fear of being alone, facing rejection, saying “no,” or looking for and finding a job so you can fend for yourself. Everyone experiences anxiety when they’re dealing with these situations. However, the right thing to do is find a way to overcome it.

That isn’t the only way that secondary gains of anxiety make it possible to get what you want. As we mentioned above, attention from others, staying in your comfort zone without anyone questioning you, and being able to justify inappropriate behaviors, among others, are great ways to avoid taking responsibility for your actions.

An anxious guy with his head on his hands.

It’s important to remember that people with anxiety don’t do any of this on purpose. They don’t set out to suffer from anxiety just to take advantage of the things we’ve mentioned here. If you suffer from anxiety, you actually suffering. You aren’t scheming to manipulate people around you and take advantage of the situation. All of this happens unconsciously. In fact, it’s a vicious cycle because the secondary gains of anxiety reinforce the anxiety itself.

The problem is that you start to organize your entire life around your anxiety. You deny yourself opportunities for growth and many positive experiences. Like the homeless man in the example above, you’ll end up living in a precarious situation forever, rather than solving the root problem. The key is to not accept that your anxiety is inseparable from who you are as a person. On the contrary, it’s something that you can overcome. If you can’t do it on your own, the best thing to do is talk to a mental health professional.

  • Marsiglia, G. (2010). Estudio clínico y epidemiológico de la ansiedad y la depresión en una muestra de 1 159 pacientes. Gaceta Médica de Caracas, 118(1), 03-10.