Anxiety gets a bad-rap for all the anguish and distress that it can cause at high levels, but I’d like to shine some light on the functional aspects of anxiety. In no way do I want to minimize the significant impairments that clinical levels of anxiety can cause for many. However, it’s also important to give some consideration to the fact that a healthy dose of anxiety can help people thrive and meet their true potential.
Anxiety is an emotion that gives people the motivation and much needed drive to complete tasks in a timely manner and to meet their potential in life. Can you imagine if you were completely relaxed all the time? You would never get anything done! A recent study from the University of Waterloo found that manageable levels of anxiety actually helped people recall the details of an event. This makes sense given the fact that anxiety can cause one to be more alert and focused. If one is alert, it is natural to pay more attention to details and to be able to recall these details at a later time. A healthy level of anxiety can also be helpful in social functioning because it causes us to think about how our actions can create consequences in our relationships with people we care about. For example, our anxiety is the driving force that encourages us to stop watching T.V., and instead, to get ready for a dinner date with a friend because we don’t want to offend them by being late. Anxiety is helpful to our functioning because it keeps us accountable for our actions.
However, this same study from the University of Waterloo also found that when people have high levels of anxiety, not only does it stop helping with memory and recall, but it actually creates a negative emotional state for the person that ends up clouding the entire accuracy of the encounter. It’s almost like they see the entire experience through a lens on negativity, which in turn, causes them to misinterpret the reality of the situation. This is good to know because it reminds us that high levels of anxiety that create a negative emotional state can cause us to have an inaccurate view of the world in which we live. This inaccurate view can cause us to think that situations are actually more threatening than they truly are, causing us to further validate our need to be anxious and to avoid. It can be a vicious cycle.
That said, I believe that it is important for those suffering from unhealthy levels of anxiety to find a psychologist with whom they feel safe, and to work on re-framing and re-structuring these negative thoughts. Therapy can help by helping you to identify the negative thoughts with which you are entering a situation and the effect that this mindset has on the outcome of your experience. With the help of a good psychologist, you can reduce the negative nature of the lens with which you view experiences. This, in turn, will result in a greater number positive & rewarding experiences, causing the negative cycle to shift to one of positive growth. In addition, this study also shows us that if instructors made an attempt to lighten the mood in a teaching environment to create positive associations with learning and to reduce high levels of anxiety, it can help increase retention of the material being taught.
Given this information, has your view of anxiety changed? Maybe if it’s brought down to a functional level, anxiety can be a motivational ally!