by: Emily Holland
You may associate anxiety with the negative symptoms it produces, such as accelerated heart rate, racing thoughts, and feelings of intense fear. But according to the research I’ll discuss in this article, anxiety in small doses—i.e., mild to moderate anxiety—can actually work to your advantage.
From coming in handy in dangerous situations to helping you prepare for a big work presentation, you can actually benefit from anxious emotions in moderation; you just need to know how to use them to your advantage.
Optimal Levels of Anxiety
Anxiety is characterized by feelings of fear, worry, or unease, typically about something that has an uncertain outcome. Too much anxiety can disrupt your focus and hinder your ability to perform at your very best. On the other hand, if you didn’t feel any anxiety, it might rob you of motivation to perform.
Take an athletic team, for example. It’s a few minutes before an important game and they are sitting in the locker room, mentally preparing. If they don’t win, the season is over. Naturally, this would cause any athlete to feel some anxiety, and that’s not a bad thing. Ultimately, it’s the amount of anxiety that will determine their performance: The athletes may become completely overwhelmed by adrenaline and the what-ifs and become paralyzed by fear, or conversely, may not care if they win and lack motivation. Ultimately, both scenarios are likely to lead to poor performance.
Research supports the idea that anxiety, while it may get a bad rep, actually serves a very functional purpose when at a healthy level. In 2008, psychologists at Stanford University discovered that the anterior insula, an area of the brain associated with emotion processing and perceived control, plays a vital role in predicting danger and learning to avoid it. The study examined activity in the insula of healthy adults who were anticipating a financial loss. Participants with greater insula activation were more likely to learn how to avoid financial loss than those with lower activation in the insula.
While the study concluded that some anxiety could be helpful in making decisions, previous research found that individuals with chronic anxiety have excessive insula activity, which can potentially lead to a psychological disorder. The Stanford researchers agree that maintaining an optimal level of anxiety, one that is neither too high nor too low, can provide positive value.
Note: While occasional anxiety is normal, some people frequently experience intense anxiety and worry excessively about everyday situations. This kind of anxiety can interfere with one’s daily routine and feel very hard to control. For these cases, seeking help from a professional can be extremely beneficial.
3 Techniques to Harness Anxiety
Below are ways to use optimal levels of anxiety to your advantage:
- Accept that you’ll have some anxiety. Many people panic at the first trace of anxiety. You may misinterpret a racing heart, sweaty palms, and nervousness as an indication that you are in serious trouble and need to figure a way out (enter the fight or flight response). While anxiety can protect you, it is sometimes out of proportion to what you are experiencing.
By accepting that anxiety may arise, whether it has a good reason to or not, could determine how you choose to handle it. By accepting that anxiety will be present before it occurs, or accepting it as it arises, rather than fighting or fleeing from it, you can allot yourself the opportunity to use it productively. How can you use something to your advantage while constantly trying to fight it off?
As mentioned, anxiety can only be helpful if you are willing to first welcome it. Reminding yourself that you can benefit from anxiety may help to negate the anger or frustration you feel when it arises in its many uncomfortable forms. Accepting symptoms of anxiety is the first step in using it to your advantage.
- Change your perspective on anxiety. Once you learn to accept your anxiety, you are better equipped to shift your perception of it. As mentioned above, you may think of anxiety in terms of its many negative symptoms, but anxiety holds many benefits. You just can’t reap those benefits if you associate anxiety with fear, discomfort, or even danger.
Research has shown the advantages to changing your approach to anxiety from a negative to positive one. In a 2015 study published in the journal, Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 103 undergraduate students were asked to keep a diary detailing their experience of anxiety, stress, and emotional exhaustion for 10 days prior to taking an exam. Students who interpreted their anxiety as being helpful reported less emotional exhaustion and performed better academically, both on the exam and throughout the rest of the term.
By shifting your perception of anxiety to a more positive one, you create space for it to benefit you. When you feel anxiety setting in, you can remind yourself of its advantages: how it can motivate you, keep you alert and quick on your feet, help you make well thought-out decisions, and allow you to perform at your very best.
- Turn your anxiety into action. When you feel anxious, it’s easy to focus all of your attention and energy on the fear itself. But when you become overly attached to your anxiety and the symptoms it produces, it can actually paralyze you, preventing you from recognizing the best course of action.
A better alternative is to channel your anxiety into action while it’s at a manageable level, before it’s too high; then you can actually use it as a motivator to study for a test or prepare for an important presentation.
This is when it’s important to find your optimal level of anxiety—zero anxiety and you may not be motivated to take any action at all; extremely high anxiety and you’ll be too paralyzed to act. When you’re experiencing low levels of anxiety, you can focus on what steps to take to perform optimally.
Will you still feel anxious? Most likely. But by accepting, reframing, and acting on your anxiety, it can feel more like a helpful friend and less like a disruptive rival.
*Therapist’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Small Steps Counseling; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program