When it comes to anxiety, Goldilocks had the right idea—you want it to be “just right.” Too little anxiety can actually lead to laziness or complacency and too much anxiety is a recipe for disaster. But, a healthy balance of anxiety can propel you forward in life and keep you on top of your game.
Anxiety is a psychological and/or physiological state characterized by worry, uneasiness, or dread. Many people use the terms anxiety and stress interchangeably, but they are different. Stress has become a general term that refers to the stress response, or automatic physical changes that occur in response to a real or perceived threat. During this response, chemical messages are relayed from the brain to the adrenal glands. Stress can become chronic and can have drastic effects on health. Still, it’s different from anxiety–stress can include anger and frustration, whereas anxiety typically involves worry and rumination.
Research has long held that anxiety actually enhances performance…up to a point. Too much anxiety has a negative impact on performance. The key is to find that middle ground. The right amount of anxiety can motivate a person to succeed and enable multi-tasking, whereas too much anxiety can make even the simplest task difficult. In fact, a recent study found that extra anxiety took a toll on performance. The study involved 79 female and 70 male students who were assigned a letter-identifying exercise. Women who identified themselves as anxious had to work harder at the task. What’s more—once they started making errors, they made them at a higher rate than other subjects, suggesting that anxiety was taking a toll on performance.
How Much is Too Much Anxiety?
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Many people have too much anxiety, as evidenced by the rise in anxiety disorders. Some signs you may have too much anxiety:
- You live in a constant state of aroused worry or fretting.
- You’re addicted to caffeine and/or cigarettes.
- You experience a constant stream of negative self talk.
- You can’t sleep.
- You need alcohol or medication to relax.
- You overspend, run late, or miss deadlines.
Finding a Balance
For optimal health and performance, you want to strike the right anxiety balance. You’re looking for anxiety that energizes rather than paralyzes you. Everyone experiences some anxiety—it’s what you do with it that counts. The most successful people are those who have learned to harness and channel their anxiety into positive action. For example, Olympic athletes may feel anxiety prior to their event, but they use that anxiety to fuel their performance. Part of the reason they are so successful at this is because they have rehearsed over and over—and rehearsal can help diffuse fear. In fact, the best way to manage anxiety is to shift the focus from fear to productive activity, such as rehearsal, practice, or studying. Relaxation techniques such as meditation and deep breathing are also useful for managing and channeling anxiety.
Moran TP, Taylor D, Moser JS. Sex moderates the relationship between worry and performance monitoring brain activity in undergraduates. International Journal of Psychophysiology. Published early online May 29, 2012. ,