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Dealing With Failure

The Unexpected Benefits of Anxiety

Embracing your inner "healthy neurotic" is good for your career.


For that public presentation that you’re dreading, how would you feel if your live audience was replaced by mannequins? Do you think you’d feel as anxious? Probably not—who cares what they think, right?

So you feel calmer about the challenge, which is a comfortable state to be in. But when the big day comes, I bet you’d perform worse in front of the dummies than in front of your colleagues. Because it’s the anxiety—the fear of what might go wrong—that will motivate you to prepare the talk, and give you the adrenaline to give an energetic, engaging presentation.

Indeed, calming yourself down is often the wrong thing to do. Research by Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard Business School [pdf] found that when participants interpreted their nerves as excitement (for example, by saying to themselves “I’m excited!”), they gave better public presentations than those who tried to relax.

Calming yourself down is often the wrong thing to do.

If you’re not anxious at all about an upcoming test, it probably means you don’t care. It’s only when anxiety becomes excessive and out of control that it starts to harm your performance. Psychologists have known about this anxiety “sweet spot” for decades and it’s captured in the classic anxiety—performance curve shown below.

Anxiety Curve

One way to prevent anxiety from getting out of hand is to recognize its benefits. By seeing anxiety as your friend, you’re less likely to fall into a spiral of fear, which is the horrible state of getting anxious about being anxious. To help you see anxiety as a super-power to be tamed rather than as a weakness to be corrected, the following is the low down on some of the specific advantages that anxiety brings.

Anxiety can help you make better decisions

It’s a mistake to think that we’d make better decisions if only we could keep our emotions in check. The neurologist Antonio Damasio once reported on a patient who had part of his brain removed that connects the frontal lobes with deeper regions involved in emotions. Rather than this turning him into a Spock-like character who made every decision objectively, the patient was paralyzed with indecision.

It’s a mistake to think that we’d make better decisions if only we could keep our emotions in check.

Patients with brain-damage that specifically rendered them free of anxiety and fear didn’t fare much better. They behaved with impulsivity, social insensitivity, and a disregard for the future. Suffice to say, a mix of emotions like anxiety and logical thinking leads to sound decision-making.

It’s true there is plenty of research [pdf] showing that higher levels of anxiety can make us more risk averse in our decision making (which may be unwelcome in some situations, such as deterring you from taking an exciting job opportunity), but there is also evidence that anxiety can enhance the attention you pay to relevant information.

A study from 2009 used what’s known as the Iowa Gambling Task, which requires participants to choose between decks of cards that are loaded with different chances of reward and penalty. ”Bad decks” are tempting because they contain cards that pay out more money or points than “good decks,” but they also contain much harsher penalties, meaning you’d lose out in the end if you only took cards from bad decks. The researchers Martina Kirsch and Sabine Windman found that children and adults who were more anxious performed better, showing that they were better able to keep track of the relative benefits and risks of each deck.

“It is often forgotten,” wrote Kirsch and Windman, “that anxiety is an adaptive, protective behavioral motive that influences our choices and actions in a beneficial way.”

Consider the phenomenon that psychologists call “unrealistic optimism.” This is most people’s lifelong tendency to be overly hopeful about the future. This rose-tinted, blinkered view is usually sustained through life by our disregard for negative information and preference for self-serving feedback. We often irrationally ignore information that would negatively affect us, while being more than happy to “update” our thinking when receiving information that benefits us in some way. But new, as yet unpublished, research by Tali Sharot at University College London shows that if you make people anxious (for example by giving them a surprise request to give a public talk), this “update bias” is removed, resulting in better decision making.

In other words, when you’re feeling moderately anxious, this can help you adjust your appraisal of a situation more objectively. Say you’re gathering information on that appealing job prospect—it’s possible a little anxiety will likely help you weigh up all the pros and cons you encounter, rather than just focusing on the good stuff.

This line of reasoning even extends to political science where some scholars have argued a dose of anxiety makes us better voters because it changes the way we process the news, so that we’re better informed and less prone to lazy thinking.

You’re more like a ninja when you’re anxious

The churn of uncontrolled anxiety can have you in its suffocating grip when you’re safe and at home trying to relax. That’s a truly unpleasant feeling. But feeling anxious in an appropriate situation, such as before and during an interview, it’s reassuring to know that this is your body putting you in ninja mode, speeding your reflexes and making you highly alert to threats.

Consider a lab test of this effect published in 2012. Researchers showed that when they made participants anxious by threatening them with (mild) electric shocks, this sped up the participants’ reflexive eye movements to targets that appeared on a computer screen. Conversely, anxious participants were slower when the task was to look away from targets. This shows how anxiety works: It makes you quicker to rely on your instincts but slower to deploy unlearned responses (newly appearing targets automatically capture our attention so it feels unnatural to look away from them). This is why practice and preparation is so important, because it ensures your instinctual behavior is advantageous. It’s why emergency response workers train for every possible situation. Top performers make sure that when the stress sets in, they can switch to autopilot and do what needs to be done. Put simply, anxiety plus training equals optimal performance.

Anxiety plus training equals optimal performance.

This ninja-like advantage also extends to people who are more anxious than usual by nature. Recent studies have shown that people who are anxious in their relationships (for example, they fear abandonment) tend to be better at spotting liars and are more likely to raise the alarm when danger is present.

The researchers behind this work, Tsachi Ein-Dor and Adi Perry, say this is consistent with their theory that anxiously-attached people are “natural sentinels.” Of course you want the cool heads, optimists, and clutch players on your team, but these findings suggest it pays too to have an anxious person on board—someone alert to danger and willing to raise the alarm for the good of the group.

Feeling anxious is a sign that you’re intelligent

Popular culture worships at the altar of the “cool guy,” the James Bond hero who laughs in the face of danger. For people who worry a lot, this gives them something else to worry about—why can’t they be more like the happy-go-lucky, extreme sports enthusiast who sits next to them at work?

Back in the real world though, it’s worth realizing that feeling anxious occasionally is extremely common, it communicates to others that you care, and what’s more, it’s probably a sign of intelligence. At least two published studies to date have identified a revealing correlation—people who score higher on measures of anxiety also tend to perform better on intelligence tests, especially of verbal intelligence.

This seems intuitive: if you’re a thinker, you’re bound to dwell on the future and imagine possible scenarios, including bad ones. Such anticipation is of course the basis of much anxiety (there’s evidence that anxious people have fewer fatal accidents, probably because they’re thinking ahead and avoiding risks).

The important thing if you’re a worrywart is not to let your fear cripple your ambitions. And don’t bury your head in the sand. Instead, act on your fears—do the research, do the preparation, so rather than walking blindly into that which you fear, you meet the challenge in full readiness. Not only will this actually assuage your anxiety, it will of course boost your performance on the day. Psychologists refer to anxious people who behave this way as “healthy neurotics.” These individuals are high in conscientiousness and translate their fear into practical action (for example, they respond to their health fears by eating well and exercising regularly).

***

When anxiety overwhelms you, or casts a shadow over your life, this is a serious problem. No one is denying that (and there is help available if this describes you, including cognitive behavioural therapy and other techniques). But everyday anxiety of the kind that you feel before a presentation or interview, you needn’t see as your enemy. Anxiety is an important emotion, cultivated through evolution, that gives you powerful ninja-like advantages when you need them most. And for people who are moderately anxious by nature, there is reason for cheer too. Your nerves are a sign of your vigilance. Listen to them, act on them, and you can turn your nervousness to your advantage.

Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, a columnist on personality for BBC Future, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. He’s currently working on his next book, PersonologyOn Twitter @Psych_Writer.

Comments (7)
  • Kristin Blank

    I don’t consider this article to be about true clinical anxiety, which is completely different from “being nervous before a test.” True anxiety is paralyzing and overwhelms your whole physical self–it does NOT make you “more like a ninja.” This is an article about “nervousness.”

    • Sasha

      This is addressed directly in the last paragraph of the article.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_426RiwST8 Praetorian

    “spiral of fear, which is the horrible state of getting anxious about being anxious.”
    It’s a f*cking never-ending fight. You feel….lifeless…tired, and you can not “perceive” the world around you.

  • Maeve Condell

    Athletes call this getting into the zone to perform under pressure.

  • http://blog.theadamthomas.com Adam Thomas

    Anxiety can often be a guide in helping make the decision in whether to pursue something. If it is there, more than likely you are stretching some sort of an ability.

    If you can learn how to channel that into excitement, then the possibilities of an awesome life increase…You would be excited to improve…so you will seek it out.

  • Gomer Pile

    The first rule is to use moderation. That’s just common sense.

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