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Anxiety Isn't the Problem—Your Response Is

Research shows anxiety can help you do better if you know how to respond to it.

eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock
Source: eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

What do you think about when you hear the word anxiety? Perhaps you imagine the sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat you experience when you are about to give a public presentation. Or maybe you think about the times you have trouble sleeping, because you're worried about the kids or fretting about the bills.

Anxiety can limit your potential. But it isn't all bad. In fact, new research shows anxiety may actually help you perform better—if you know how to respond to it.

What Constitutes Anxiety?

The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an emotion "characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure." Anxiety is a set of psychological and physiological symptoms brought about by a sense of apprehension at a perceived threat. The symptoms vary from person to person and depend on the magnitude of the perceived threat, so while one person might break into a sweat at the thought of stepping onto a plane, someone else might get dizzy when faced with a large pile of work and a tight deadline.

The Purpose of Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal part of human life, and it can help keep you safe. If you didn't have any anxiety at all, you wouldn't look both ways before you crossed the street. When faced with a sudden life-or-death situation, you wouldn't flinch. Your body's fight-or-flight response is meant to help you escape danger and stay alive.

But most of us also experience anxiety in situations that aren't exactly life-threatening. Paying your utility bill a little late or asking for a raise probably won't kill you, but your body may react as if you were dangling from the edge of a cliff.

How Anxiety Influences Your Performance

Many studies have shown how anxiety can impair memory and reduce concentration. But new research suggests that it doesn't always have to hurt performance. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Individual Differences found that anxiety can also motivate people to do better. Individuals who appraise a stressful situation as a challenge—rather than a threat—can gain energy from their anxiety.

That makes sense. Perhaps you preferred to write your college papers the night before they were due, because the looming deadline helped you get it done. Or maybe your anxiety over getting a bad grade helped you sit down and study more often. Feeling anxious could help you stay on track toward your goals—but only if you're open to embracing it. Many people put their energy into suppressing anxiety or avoiding it altogether. But those habits will reinforce for you that anxiety is bad and that experiencing it will harm you.

Researchers found people perform better when they acknowledge their anxiety. Labeling their emotions and accepting that feeling anxious can be part of the process helps them devote their time and energy to their goals.

Embrace It, Don't Avoid It

Although anxiety is uncomfortable, it's tolerable. But we live in a culture that teaches us anxiety is bad—and many people mistakenly believe that anxiety is much more horrible than it is.

Embrace your anxiety sometimes. Remind yourself that feeling anxious is part of being human. And sometimes it can serve as evidence that you're stepping outside your comfort zone. Instead of thinking, "I shouldn't be this nervous," or "My anxiety is proof I'm going to fail," tell yourself, "I'm anxious and I can still do well." Don't allow anxiety to derail you from your goals; you can still succeed when you're nervous.

Building mental strength isn't about feeling calm all the time. It's about feeling anxious and taking action anyway. Being productive, even when you're anxious, will help you develop confidence in your ability to handle discomfort. And that can help you look at stress as a challenge, rather than a threat. When you're able to do that, you can use anxiety to fuel your performance.

Seek Help for Serious Anxiety

If, however, anxiety is interfering with your everyday functioning—making it feel difficult to go to work, attend school, or socialize with others—it could be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are very treatable with the help of a mental health professional. As a psychotherapist, I know that many people with anxiety disorders go untreated for years, but the sooner you get help, the sooner you can start feeling better.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

Want to know how to give up the bad habits that rob you of mental strength? Pick up a copy of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.

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