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The Double-Edged Sword of Anxiety

Anxiety can spawn success or make it harder to succeed.

Key points

  • While a certain level of anxiety can help someone be successful, it can also impair performance.
  • Emerging research suggests that the key difference between helpful and debilitating anxiety is how one perceives their emotions.
  • When people view their anxiety in a positive light, they can harness it to create a good outcome.

Glenn Hall was arguably the best goalie ever to play for the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team—to this day, he is known to fans as “Mr. Goalie.” And vomiting from anxiety was famously a vital part of his pregame ritual.

Remarking on his entire 19-year NHL career, he said, "I did it before almost every game because I played better when I did." Interestingly, Hall knew that his anxiety wasn’t anything to be afraid of. In fact, he indicated that it helped him to be competitive: "I worked myself into it. I reminded myself I was representing my family and it would be unforgivable to not play at a certain standard."[i]

Several of my patients who perform in public, including actors and musicians, have told me that if they don't have butterflies or a certain level of fright before they go on stage, it’s often followed by a subpar performance. As one of them recently put it, “I’d much prefer to be anxious than sluggish!”

These common forms of pre-performance jitters are well known—albeit perhaps to a lesser degree—by those in leadership roles. A certain level of anxiety can help leaders to be successful, since being at the helm of a group requires anticipating weighing the odds of a certain approach failing, enumerating the various possibilities that may result, and developing strategies for each situation. Whether one is heading up a creative, business, or scientific project, it’s helpful to be at least one step ahead of the game, and anxiety is a great impetus for this level of preparedness.

At the same time, everyone knows that anxiety can also impair performance and even undermine daily functioning.

What is the difference between anxiety that spawns success, versus anxiety that makes it harder to succeed? Emerging neuroscientific findings[ii] suggest that the key difference is not the nature or even severity of one’s anxiety, but rather how one perceives their emotions. When people view their anxiety in a positive light, they can harness it to succeed. Conversely, perceiving anxiety as dangerous or problematic tends to lead to worse outcomes.

Several years ago, I had two very similar patients on my caseload. Both were college students in their early twenties, came from upper-middle-class suburban neighborhoods, and they even had first names that began with the same letter! But that was where their similarities ended.

Sophia was failing to launch. She had ambitions to pursue a law career, but she was smoking marijuana regularly, usually slept in, hadn’t even begun studying for the Law School Application Test (LSAT), and in the past year, she had dropped two courses that were required to graduate. When we discussed these maladaptive strategies, it became clear that Sophia was quite anxious about getting into law school. However, she interpreted his anxiety as an indication that she would ultimately fail at this task. Her lackadaisical approach was born out of feelings of pessimism and despair.

Stella, on the other hand, was a bundle of nerves both inside and out. Also ambitious to become a lawyer, she had a near-perfect grade point average and was spending her days and nights prepping for the LSAT, yet she was feeling extremely panicked about getting into law school. Stella spent so much time studying that her social life was minimal, and she was excessively dedicated to work at the expense of her well-being. But, fundamentally speaking, she didn’t judge herself or get overwhelmed by the fact that she felt anxious. She saw this as part of the process of achieving her life goals.

Clinically, Stella was much easier to work with than Sophia. Yes, Stella felt excessively impelled to ensure her future success. She was overly stressed and tense, and she needed therapy to manage her anxiety. However, she never lost confidence in herself because of her feelings. So, she remained in a good place overall and essentially just needed to learn to relax.

In the end, Stella did get into law school whereas Sophia did not. The reason was that once Stella was able to “chill out,” it didn't kill her motivation or get in the way of her productivity—on the contrary, she was able to work even harder and more effectively since she was happier and less plagued by worry and stress. By contrast, Sophia was so concerned about her anxiety that she couldn’t function. She had given up before starting because she saw her anxiety as an impenetrable barrier.

In sum: Anxiety can certainly cloud your judgment and be counterproductive. But anxiety can also be a harbinger—and even a catalyst—of success. The primary difference is in the eye of the beholder.

References

[i] David Haugh, “Today’s NHL Makes ‘Mr. Goalie’ Sick,” Chicago Tribune, May 21, 2009. https://bit.ly/3q2aLDU

[ii] Randolph, J. J. (2013). Promoting psychosocial and cognitive wellness in the workplace: The emerging neuroscience of leadership development. In Positive Neuropsychology (pp. 103-119). Springer, New York, NY.

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