PUBLISHED: 16:51 EST, 20 June 2012 | UPDATED: 16:51 EST, 20 June 2012
Despite the discomfort of high anxiety, sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat could be just the ticket to success.
According to psychologists, somewhere between crippling anxiety and too much optimism is a ‘sweet spot’ where we perform at our peak and are most productive.
A moderate amount of anxiety, say experts, keeps us on our toes and jazzed up enough that we can multitask while keeping alert for possible obstacles.
Stephen Josephson, a psychologist in New York City, summed it up for the Wall Street Journal saying: ‘Coaches and sports psychologists have always known that you don’t want your athlete to be relaxed right before an event. You need some “juice” to go fast.’
The difficulty in finding that balance of healthy nerves, where productivity is optimal, can be attributed to the way in which the human psyche has evolved against the backdrop of the modern world, explained Dennis Tirch, associate director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York.
Man’s ancient ‘threat-detection’ system used to identify potential dangers such as approaching predators or enemies, has not developed enough to keep up with our ability to worry about the future, stress about the past and conjure up imaginary scenarios.
In a mind capable of all these things, the body is prone to kicks into a ‘fight or flight’ mode and suddenly an internal presentation can present the same threat as an exploding volcano.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 40 million Americans are affected by anxiety, the symptoms of which can vary between constant worry to panic attacks to post traumatic stress disorder.
Neuroscience has proven that for those with high anxiety, of whom only about one third seek treatment, simple tasks are that much more difficult.
In one recent study by psychologist Jason Moser of Michigan State University, the brain activity of 79 females and 70 males was monitored as the performed an easy letter-identifying exercise.
‘You don’t want your athlete to be relaxed right before an event. You need some “juice” to go fast’
The women showing higher activity in the anterior cingulate cortex – the believed centre of anxiety – did equally well in the test but had to work much harder to get the same results as those who did not show anxiety.
The flip-side of the coin is that others, who aren’t victims of such high levels of anxiety, are not concerned enough for optimal performance.
Eternal optimists, those with attention deficit disorders and ‘procrastinating perfectionists’ are among such characters.
There are also people who subconsciously make a situation stressful by being late or overspending just to feel the pressure to motivate.
Marianne Legato, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University in New York, calls these people ‘fretters’.
That a healthy degree of anxiety could be beneficial is not a completely new theory.
In 1908, Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson created the aptly named Yerkes-Dodson curve that traces the line from insufficient anxiety to the other extreme and is still taught in psychology courses today.
So how does one succeed at finding the middle ground where one can channel an overbearing sense of panic into positive, productive energy?
Dr Moser says the key is to focus on the task at hand rather than the sensation of fear in the moment: ‘I tell a lot of my patients that Nike really has a great slogan -“Just Do It”‘.