Debunking Myths of the Mind

A little knowledge can be a risky thing.

How Much Anxiety Is Too Much?

You are listening to your anxiety more than you may realize.

There is a law known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. This law teaches us that many psychological phenomena affect how we perform in a U-shaped manner. Anxiety is no exception. At first, the more anxiety you have, the better it is for you. But at the top of the curve, the effect starts to reverse. Your performance starts to drop when anxiety is too much. Your challenge in daily life is to keep anxiety within the risking part of that curve, but how do you do this without risking burnout?

I think that this curve is helpful, but misses a few key points, which I will highlight below:

1. Anxiety can be unconscious: Studies show that anxiety activates the brain unconsciously. When it does, it also disrupts how you make decisions or assess risks. In fact, it can make you interpret neutral events as negative. You may not be aware of your anxiety, and as a result, cannot measure it.

ACTION POINT: When your performance declines, assume that unconscious anxiety is playing a role. Ask yourself: what could be causing this anxiety. One way to find out is to probe your background: what events caused major anxiety in the past? How does the current situation relate to it? For example, you may be under pressure to meet a deadline. And this may activate old memories of never being at school on time or having been fired. The latter may not be something you are thinking of but may come up unconsciously. Make a distinction between the past and present.

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2. Stresses add up: You may have just minimal anxiety about missing that deadline, so you may be expected to feel motivated but you may also be worried about your child's ADD and your close to absent sex life. This may all add up.

ACTION POINT: Think of home and work related anxieties as happening in the same brain. There is no work-home boundary in the brain unless you create it. To do this, you will have to train your brain to attend to whatever is in your physical environment and give all its attention to that rather than also be looking over its shoulder at home-related anxieties. This can happen but is not automatic. Leaving home anxieties at home can - believe it or not - be anxiety provoking. But realize that you can only attend to a few things at a time and that while you are at work, you will likely only make things worse by obsessing about home-related anxieties.

3. Surviving is different from thriving: Having low anxiety does not always mean having no anxiety. It may mean that your anxiety is being dealt with. This takes brain resources and can contribute to burnout.

ACTION POINT: If you are a high functioning person who copes well, recognize that you may be settling for less than you are capable of because you are being burned out. Aside from exploring your anxieties- explore what coping methods drain you. Do you have to strain to keep things out of your mind? Are you pushing back tears? Do you find that you "get by" but are by no means living a relaxed life? Coping also causes fatigue. It is a delicate balance to "cope" when it is necessary and "over-cope" too often because that is your lifestyle.

4. What is too much for you? Anxiety is not just about how much you have, but whose brain it is in. Are you genetically vulnerable to medium anxiety whereas others are not? Do you find yourself in an embarrassing meltdown while others think you should be just fine?

ACTION POINT: Do not judge your own reactions by other people's standards. Take a minute and understand that you have your own genes and your own history. It is unreasonable to expect yourself to have the same reaction as anyone else. You may have to come to terms with more than your anxiety - you may have to accept that you are different and seek to be around people who understand this.

5. Anxiety can be less "personal" than you think: Sometimes the body flips out. It goes into sympathetic overdrive and has your heart pounding and has you feeling a little dizzy. By focusing on this, you can make things worse.

ACTION POINT: You can say to yourself: "My body is just freaking out. I hope it stops soon." If you are medically well (make sure that you are because medical illnesses can masquerade as anxiety), not identifying with your anxiety is helpful. Sometimes it helps to look at rather than analyze your anxiety. And while you are doing this, interrupt the process by thinking of something good or even amazing. You will see how helpful this can be when you are in the mist of this turmoil.

Work anxiety then cannot simply be measured by how much or how little you have. If your performance is not optimal or you are not setting the bar higher in your life, consider that you are listening to your anxiety more than you may realize.

Srini Pillay, M.D., is the author of the book: Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear. He is also an Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School.

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