Anxiety Makes Us Perform Better
How performance anxiety can boost brain power and performance
Posted Sep 05, 2017
Peak mental performance
A question on the mind of every innovator, founder, and leader is: How can I reach my peak mental performance? We are obsessed with following the stories of the world’s top performers in hopes that by getting a glimpse of their life a little piece of greatness will rub off.
The Tim Ferriss Show, a podcast that interviews world-class performers, is a perfect example of this obsession, with over 150 million individual episode downloads. Why is this the case? It’s likely because self-improvement and personal growth is a fundamental drive that exists in us all. We’re always looking for ways to be better and to improve our peak psychological functioning.
And now there’s scientific research showing that our peak performance is closely tied to how we feel. In this post you’ll learn from leading neuroscience research that being the best version of ourselves means feeling emotions, particularly negative emotions.
For centuries, emotions got a bad rap from both ancient philosophers (Aristotle’s virtuous life of reason over emotion) and theologians (Christianity’s seven deadly sins). Over time, this thinking informed cognitive scientists’ research and led to the idea that “cold” calculated cognition was the model for optimal performance, and that emotion was a mere bi-product of the process.
This has changed over the past decade with the understanding that emotions are a critical part of human functioning. But what does this mean for the different types of emotions that we feel?
Positive emotions happen in times when we feel safe and when our world is certain and predictable. People love feel-good emotions. There are entire departments and designated research hubs whose sole purpose is to spread the word of positive emotion. The public also caught on, with the number of self-help happiness products (a $10 billion industry) growing year over year, to where we’re now seeing the digitization of happiness through apps like Happify.
Positive emotions are no doubt important, but if the recent Pixar movie, Inside Out, taught us (and our kids) anything, it’s that negative emotions shouldn’t be ignored. It’s the negative emotions that matter most for driving our optimal performance.
We experience negative emotions when there is something uncertain or unknown in our environment. Anxiety, for instance, helps to hone our attention to what is directly in front of us, which is the brain’s way of telling us that this thing (or person) is important and should be resolved or dealt with before moving on.
Without the experience of negative emotions, you’re less likely to reach a state of optimal performance. The reason, we suspect, is that negative emotions trigger a system in the brain that tell us when our performance is starting to suffer. Without those feelings of anxiety and frustration, the brain isn’t able to do as good a job driving optimal performance.
My team and I took this hypothesis into the lab and asked the following question: Does feeling unpleasant emotions help us (and our brain) improve performance?
The experiment worked as follows. Participants completed multiple rounds of a cognitive timing performance task. The better they did on the task, the more money they would get to take home. But the task was difficult and participants made errors in their performance.
In one half of the rounds, participants completed the task while being told to react to their errors in a “cold, emotionless, analytic way with a detached attitude” (a prime to get them to suppress the experience of any performance anxiety). In the other half, participants were given the same instructions but instead this time were told to react to their errors and the task as “an immersive experience where you really feel all the emotions” (a prime to get them to accept the experience of any performance anxiety).
Participant did both rounds while hooked up to a machine that tracked and measured their brain activity throughout the performance. Specifically, we looked at a brain activation pattern responsible for monitoring our ongoing performance behaviors. This system is constantly checking in on our behaviors, making sure that things are going as planned and that there aren’t any issues needing to be dealt with. When an issue is detected, the system sends an alarm telling the rest of the brain and body, “There’s a problem here!”
We predicted that feeling more performance anxiety would improve that alarm signal in the brain, and as a result, optimize participants’ performance.
When participants were asked to suppress their negative emotions, they reported feeling less anxious during the task. When they were asked to enhance and accept their negative emotions, they reported feeling more anxious during the task.
But the results confirmed our thinking about the utility of these negative emotions: When people felt more anxious they showed greater activation in the performance system of the brain compared to when they felt less anxious. And, this heightened activation as a result of feeling more performance anxiety predicted better, not worse, performance.
Why is this? Negative emotions play a huge part in the brain’s performance system because they awake the neural firing that allows even the slightest issue to be detected and (ideally) resolved. Anxiety is always the one going around yelling, “There’s a problem here!” In other words, negative emotions like anxiety are required for optimal performance because they allow us to see when we are experiencing setbacks, and they help keep us on track in reaching our performance goals.
It appears there’s some truth to the old adage – no pain, no gain.
Get emotional about your performance
Here are some tips for you to experience a performance brain boost:
- Make sure you’re experiencing a healthy amount of anxiety or negative emotions. This is a careful balance of course. You do not want too much bad stress, or distress. What you want is good stress, or eustress. The eustress are the adaptive “negative” emotions that allow you to achieve your goals.
- Come up with a simple few lines, your mantra, similar to the primes used in the experiment, that you can repeat (either in your head or aloud if possible) on a regular basis. You can do it once in the morning and then twice throughout the day. It’ll act as a reminder that it’s okay to accept your performance anxiety, and that these negative feelings are actually helping you perform better.
- Be mindful of your negative feelings. This means having awareness and accepting them as is. Remember the self-help and happiness hype I mentioned earlier? An unfortunate consequence of this movement is that it makes people feel like any sort of negative experience of anxiety or sadness is not okay. But we know from research that suppressing negative emotions backfires and only ends up making things worse. So, be okay with experiencing a healthy dose of anxiety.
- Keep a negative emotions log. Not as a method to get rid of the feelings, but to help empower you to meet your goals and drive peak performance. By doing this, you own those emotions and use them to your advantage. The log can have three columns: one for what you’re feeling, a second for what triggered it, and a third for the goal that this will help you achieve.
So go ahead, get emotional and uncover your true performance potential. Your brain will thank you for it.
Hobson, N. M., Saunders, B., Al-Khindi, T., & Inzlicht, M. (2014). Emotion down-regulation diminishes cognitive control: A neurophysiological investigation. Emotion, 14, 1014-1026.