Anxiety Can Bring Out the Best
Melinda Beck, Wall Street Journal
You have an important presentation tomorrow but your heart is racing and your mind is serving up a steady stream of what-ifs: What if I'm not fully prepared? What if it goes badly? You're running out of time. The last thing you need is all this anxiety.
Actually, a little anxiety may be just what you need to focus your efforts and perform at your peak, psychologists say.
Somewhere between checked out and freaked out lies an anxiety sweet spot, some researchers say, in which a person is motivated to succeed yet not so anxious that performance takes a dive. This moderate amount of anxiety keeps people on their toes, enables them to juggle multiple tasks and puts them on high alert for potential problems.
"Coaches and sports psychologists have always known that you don't want your athlete to be relaxed right before an event. You need some 'juice' to go fast," says Stephen Josephson, a psychologist in New York City who has treated athletes, actors and musicians.
It can be tricky to achieve. Some overly optimistic people and those with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder may lack enough anxiety to take action. Others—mostly procrastinating perfectionists—must create anxiety-producing situations in order to get anything done.
Regulating anxiety is also difficult because humans' ancient threat-detection system hasn't kept pace with modern man's ability to fret about the future, ruminate about the past and imagine all kinds of terrible scenarios, says Dennis Tirch, associate director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York. So the body's primitive fight-or-flight response kicks in even when the threat at hand is a daunting social engagement or a 20-page report.
Of course, too much anxiety can be painful and destructive. Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults—18% of the population—in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Only about one-third of them seek treatment. The disorders run the gamut from panic attacks and specific phobias to obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, a random kind of worry described as free-floating and relentless. Sufferers also have a high incidence of depression and physical ailments, including migraines, high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive disorders and chronic pain, according to NIMH.
The terms anxiety and stress are often used interchangeably, although stress includes anger and frustration, while anxiety is typically worry and unease.
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