Harvard researchers have identified an ‘anxiety sweet spot’ in which anxiety can bring out your best. Birmingham University’s head of Psychology Professor Craig Jackson explains
‘We now know anxiety can help performance. There is a biochemical response known as ‘anxiety arousal’ when you are stressed and anxious in which more of the motivating chemicals adrenalin, noradreline, cortisol, serotonin and free histamines start flooding through your arterial system. This keeps you alert, focused and energized and increases performance. When people say they do well under pressure this is the biochemistry they are responding to. Athletes, actors and dancers are trained to use this arousal to help them perform better.’
Of course, too much anxiety is destructive. NHS figures show outpatient appointments for anxiety disorders – including OCD, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and Generalised Anxiety Disorder which involves being overcome with frozen panic – have increased five fold since 2007. And prescriptions for tranquilising drugs such as Valium have increased by 13 per cent in the last four years and antidepressant prescriptions (used to treat anxiety) rose by 38 per cent.
So what’s the difference between performance enhancing anxiety and a problem you need to talk to your doctor about soonish? ‘There are what we call ‘maladaptive’ ways of coping with stress and anxiety,’ says Professor Jackson. ‘This is where people become frozen and turn to drink, drugs or food to cope, usually when stress and anxiety has been going on for long periods without any recovery or rest time.
But there are also ‘adaptive’ ways of coping that are much healthier in which people use the energy their anxiety produces to do something proactive about it, for example identifying its source – say, a terrible boss – and working out ways to overcome it such as sending your CV out or strategies to cut your workload.
The difference between people who use their anxiety to their advantage and people who are crippled by it is how much control they feel they have over a situation. If you feel anxious but you can make plans to control the outcome of what is causing your anxiety, you have found your anxiety sweet spot.’
Anxiety may be enhancing your performance if you…
Are challenged, if a bit fearful
Are out of your comfort zone but thinking clearly
Feel focused and grounded
Can identify the steps you need to take to solve problems
Feel you can influence the outcome of what’s causing the anxiety
Know the source of your anxiety will eventually pass
Talk to your doctor about therapy or medication if you…
Experience memory problems
Feel paralysed by fear
Can’t make decisions
Have had sleep problems for more than two weeks
Are not focused or thinking clearly
Are drinking, eating or crying more than usual
Feel you can’t cope
Help and support: Anxiety UK or call 0844 775 774
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