Feeling anxious is often viewed as a bad thing. When we’re anxious, we tend to perceive the world as full of negatives. But what if we looked at anxiety from a different perspective? Despite the definition of anxiety being "a feeling of worry, nervousness about something with an uncertain outcome", it may also have benefits. But how, exactly?
Take a look at the chart above, the bell curve of anxiety. A low level of anxiety usually means that we’re calm, whereas a high level of anxiety indicates distress. In the center you’ll find the sweet-spot of anxiety; what scientists call ‘eustress’. They argue that a little bit of stress or anxiety can actually be motivating. This level of stress can help you to be excited, satisfied and fulfilled, meaning you can benefit from ‘eustress’ emotionally, physically, or psychologically. Let’s take a closer look at some of the positive effects of ‘eustress’:
Anxiety can motivate you.
Have you ever noticed that you’re sometimes more motivated to achieve when you’re anxious? This is because people are often more driven to succeed when they’re a little stressed because they don’t want to fail. When we’re anxious, we spend time thinking about how we can avoid failure and accomplish the task that needs to be done. But in order to benefit from anxiety in this way, your level of anxiety needs to be just right. It should be neither too little nor too much, like you see in the graph. Meaning some anxiety can actually help you to become more successful in tasks, especially tasks that involve competition.
Anxiety can help you to be a good leader.
Imagine a successful leader with anxiety. Sounds odd, but they do exist. Anxious people tend to think about all the difficulties and possible outcomes to any given situation. Anxious leaders tend to think more about potential challenges and solutions, and are more cautious in how they make their decisions. So when they do encounter a problem, they already have multiple contingency plans in place. This type of prudent behavior often makes good leadership.
Anxiety can protect you.
When we experience anxiety, it’s our body’s way of saying, “Hey, you’re in danger!”, even if you’re perfectly safe. This is because anxiety causes our fight-or-flight response to kick in, which is a natural human response shaped from when our ancestors used to face life-threatening risks. The fight-or-flight response forces us to take charge and do something about what’s making us anxious, or run away from it. At the right level of anxiety, this same response can help keep us safe by allowing us to be more cautious in potentially unsafe situations.
Anxiety can surprise you.
Imagine pressing your computer's power button and it doesn't turn on. If you’re a naturally anxious person, you might briefly jump to the conclusion that it’s broken. Now what if you realized that it’s not broken, it was just running out of battery? You’d be happy because that’s not what you expected, right? In situations of ambiguity, anxiety makes us focus on the worst possible outcomes. Contrary to what we expected, when we instead encounter positive outcomes, we’re pleasantly surprised. Even if we do end up being right about our negative assumptions, we can easily keep up with the situation because we’ve already started to think about alternative solutions.
Anxiety can help you save time and money.
The tendency to think about all the possible outcomes of a situation has the potential to save you valuable resources like time and money. For example, imagine you invited your friends over for dinner and want to cook something new for them. If you’re an anxious person, you might be afraid that the new recipe you’re about to try won’t be good enough, or worse, a disaster. To ease your anxiety, you also prepare practical and alternative dishes instead of preparing only one option, thereby increasing your chances of a successful dinner party. This can stop you from looking for new food, spending extra time to make a new meal, or from ordering take-out in case of any mishaps. See how easy it can be to manage potential difficulties?
All of these benefits clearly show us that, at certain levels, anxiety can actually be a good thing that can help us. Rather than shy away from anxious feelings, unless they are particularly distressful, leaning in to the ‘eustress’ can instead help you get motivated and make even better decisions. Change the way you see your anxiety and use it as a tool to your advantage. In doing so, you’ll be able to recognize your own potential and have the courage to succeed, without letting anxious feelings hold you back.
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