Why Anxiety Can Bring Out the Best in You

Disclaimer: If you suffer from an anxiety disorder characterized primarily by intense panic attacks, then there is a need to address and reduce the anxiety symptoms.

When you are anxious, your body sends out "error messages" ranging from:

  1. heart palpitations
  2. rapid breathing
  3. sweating
  4. dizziness
  5. all sorts of gastrointestinal ills, like nausea, butterflies in the stomach

The thing is, depending upon how you respond to it and what you do when it hits you; anxiety may actually serve a useful role in your life. Anxiety has a bad reputation. Interchangeably used with stress, it is often seen as a negative emotion. We need to understand that there are some interesting upsides to anxiety and that anxiety can actually be very helpful. People constantly try to avoid or reduce anxiety. But what if avoiding it just meant contributing to it further, and reducing it meant being less productive? The key is to find the sweet spot for anxiety that energises rather than paralyses. We hope to change the relationship you have with anxiety.

Interesting upsides of anxiety

1. People trust you more

Several studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, have indicated that people whom are feeling anxious can easily get embarrassed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because research shows others would find them more trusting. Embarrassment is seen as an indicator to others that this is a person to whom you can entrust confidential information. It’s part of the social glue that fosters trust and cooperation in everyday life.”

2. You may have a stronger memory

People whom are anxious often think their memory is poor, and they tend to deliberate longer over their decisions, questioning themselves and running through multiple scenarios in their minds. Studies show their memories are not as bad as they think. High-anxiety individuals have unrealistically low confidence in their memory, and as such, train themselves to allow for additional encoding time when learning. Anxiety can activate your attention to or focus on a task, thereby heightening cognitive acuity. This was also linked to a stronger memory due to ruminating and mulling over more. Furthermore, anxious individuals tend to use check lists and to-do reminders more often.

3. Hysterical Strength

When we deal with an anxiety-provoking situation, we are faced with a ‘fight-or-flight’ response. In choosing to ‘fight’, we instinctively do what is necessary to resolve the situation. In the case of ‘hysterical strength’, individuals faced with a life or death situation may feel overwhelmed with fear, and subsequently able to display extreme strength beyond what is believed to be normal.

How anxiety is GOOD and how you can use it to bring out the best in you

1. Optimal Stress/Anxiety levels

Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson argued that anxiety enhances performance—but only to a point. When anxiety gets too high, performance suffers instead. The Yerkes-Dodson law—an upside-down U shape—is still taught in psychology courses, and modern neuroscience has helped confirm it (refer to diagram). Studies have shown, for example, that the brain learns best when stress hormones are mildly elevated. It allows students to push past their comfort zones and study for longer and more productive hours as their exams near.

Most psychologists see more patients suffering from too much anxiety rather than too little, although withdrawal and lack of ambition can be a hallmark of depression. Anxiety is especially self-defeating when people focus on the fear itself, rather than the task at hand. The best way to stay in the "sweet spot” is to channel the anxiety into productive activity.

2. Anxiety Heightens Focus

The physiological and biochemical responses to being attacked are actually near identical to those you feel when you are smitten by a new love and see that person approaching you on the street.  YES! The racing heart that corresponds to terror is the same racing heart that corresponds to, “She’s/He’s The One.”

The next time you lie awake in anticipation of a presentation, tell yourself, “You are feeling this way because you are so psyched up about delivering an A+, best-ever performance.” Ditto when handed a “mission critical” assignment and you feel your stomach get rumbly: Remind yourself that the rumbling is not fear but, rather, the effects of your adrenaline.

This is also pertinent for athletes. Competitive swimmers use the sensory sharpness that anxiety affords them to focus on the finishing point as the adrenalin warms their body. Coaches and sports psychologists don't want your athlete to be relaxed right before an event. You need some 'juice' to go fast!

3. Anxiety as a guide of what's important in your life

Anxiety can serve as a guide of your life, as a measure of what is important to you.

Psychologists were examining a number of ways in which people “knew” stuff they weren’t aware of knowing. They found that anxiety is often our mind’s way of saying, “Hmm.. You’re not sure why, but you sense that this is not a good situation to be in.” Like a gut reaction.

For example, we might worry about making it to an important meeting on time due to the increased frequencies of public transport breakdowns. While there is no way that we as a commuters can directly control whether or not the train we take breaks down, we can instead choose to make our way there earlier to ensure that we still have ample time to arrive if the train does indeed break down.

By preparing ahead for a contingency, we can reduce the likelihood of a problematic outcome.

Anxiety is therefore beneficial in allowing us to think of possible steps that may improve the chance of a desirable outcome in an uncontrollable situation.

How do we make best use of our anxiety? You can begin to address it by telling yourself, “I am going to be anxious, but it is helpful for me.”  Step #2 involves asking yourself, “How does this anxiety direct me towards what I value,” whereupon you immediately move to Step #3 which involves asking, “How does this put things in perspective for me?” This would be followed by taking the necessary action without allowing the anxiety to paralyse you.

Written by Dr. Joel Yang