Anxiety May Help Performance

By: Jenna Savage

We’ve all experienced it – that nervousness the night before a final, or the jittery feeling before a big presentation. Being put into new situations or having to perform when we are being graded or judged can make us feel anxious – some more than others. But it turns out that anxiety may not be as harmful as we think. In fact, it may actually help us tackle the tasks we face as students, employees, and even just everyday people.

A recent article by The Wall Street Journal indicates that anxiety can be a motivating factor, rather a hindrance, if a person has just enough of it. The trick is finding that so-called “sweet spot,” because like with many things, too much can be harmful.

Using a graphic to illustrate the Yerkes-Dodson curve, The Wall Street Journal reports that there is a middle ground of anxiety where it motivates people to work hard, show up on time, and perform well. To the left of that middle ground are individuals that do not have enough anxiety, and who may show up for work late, lacking the motivation to work hard. On the other end of the spectrum are individuals that have too much anxiety, and whose performance may be affected by self-criticism and doubt. For individuals that find themselves suffering excessive distress or unable to complete tasks, working to alleviate some of that anxiety could be beneficial.

But the lesson here is that not all anxiety is bad. In The Wall Street Journal article, Michigan State University psychologist Jason Moser advises individuals to use their anxiety as a motivating factor that fuels production, rather than focusing on it as a negative feeling. If you’re feeling nervous about an exam, use that energy to study. If you’re concerned about an interview, use that to motivate you to prepare the night before and show up on time the day of the meeting. A little anxiety can go a long way in helping you to prepare for new and daunting events.

Of course, good anxiety only lives in that “sweet spot.” Anxiety disorders, which are conditions where anxiety is always present or where it disrupts productivity, are serious and should be treated by a psychologist or psychiatrist. When anxiety causes suffering, it needs to be lessened, and the way to do that is to talk to a professional.

But if you’re just anxious enough to linger at the top of that Yerkes-Dodson curve, then think of anxiety as a tool you can use, rather than a hindrance.