It seems every time I turn around people are talking about how to get rid of anxiety, reduce anxiety, manage anxiety. Poor “anxiety” is getting a bad rap. Anxiety, like other negative emotions, has a purpose. A little anxiety can be a good thing!
Anxiety serves as a great motivator. Think of a task you know you need to do but are dreading. If you are relaxed, it is much easier to postpone that task. But, if you are anxious about it, you will be motivated to do it if for no other reason than to simply rid yourself of the anxiety!
Anxiety can also motivate us to prepare for things like speeches, tests, and other tasks where on-demand performance is essential. Have you ever heard that famous saying about the 5 Ps? Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance? Well, harnessing your anxiety can get you there.
So, can we please stop thinking about how “bad” anxiety is and instead think about how we can use it productively?
However, too much anxiety can be detrimental. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18% of our population suffers from anxiety disorders. What happens in these cases is that as the amount of anxiety becomes overwhelming, the brain can’t handle the load and the person literally starts to shuts down.
So, there is such a thing as the “right” amount of anxiety. In 1908, Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson described an arousal curve, an upside down “U” shape. Up to a point, arousal can enhance performance, but after a certain point (the sweet spot), performance goes down. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Finding the Anxiety Sweet Spot for Peak Performance”, the Yerkes-Dodson curve has been confirmed by modern neuroscience.
Of course anyone who has experienced either extreme laziness or a panic attack could have told you the same thing. Neither extreme level of anxiety is productive. I just like to put in science to not only validate what we already think we know, but to remind us not to make assumptions about things without research and facts.
So, why am I telling you all of this? Two reasons:
- As a student, you will experience anxiety. That’s a given. They key is using that anxiety effectively. Use it to motivate yourself to keep up with your assignments. Don’t let your anxiety get out of control; don’t let it paralyze you!
- As a mental health counselors you will often see people with anxiety disorders (18% of the population, remember). So, it may be useful to explain to them that a small amount of anxiety may be beneficial. Of course you’ll need to teach them effective methods for managing the anxiety, ie. how to harness it, if you will.
But you must be able to control and manage your own anxiety in order to do this. That is what I will discuss in my next post.
Yours in the Joy of Knowledge,