Can Anxiety Be Good for You?

Rising to the Challenge

For most of us, anxiety can hardly be imagined to be a positive thing- we often are overloaded with work, family, financial, social and relationship obligations  to the point that we never feel relaxed. Many of us walk around with a fearful sense of dread that cannot be shaken, with a pounding heart and a clenched jaw.

But for many poets, comedians, actors, athletes and philosophers, anxiety can been experienced advantageously, and has been labeled the “handmaiden of creativity.” Before a performance, actors find it a helpful hormonal springboard to achieve emotional heights they never could hope to achieve during rehearsal.

In fact, in just the right handful, the hormones that drive anxiety can be a powerful, arousing stimulant that allows our senses to function at their best. There is a point when tension and performance rise in lockstep with the quality of that performance. In just the right amount, we can remember with almost perfect clarity everything we need to know for our performance or test, and this is when those that know how to really use anxiety for their own benefit can shine and blossom.

Not all Anxieties are Equal

This ability to turn anxiety back onto itself is something that some of us are more adept at doing than others. For many of us, anxiety is just crippling. Our nervous systems are not quite as adept at distinguishing between mortal terror and non-mortal circumstances. For many, there are constant subtler worries that grind at us every day, and make it impossible to relax. It is this constant feeling that creates a kind of chronic anxiety condition that leads to overload and paralysis. Sometimes a chronic anxiety condition is the consequence of having lived through a threatening experience, and then having to live in dread of its reoccurrence, such as with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Running from the Tiger

For all the suffering that anxiety causes, it is important to remember that we need it. Ultimately, anxiety is a reaction, an arousal to stimulus that we perceive as dangerous and threatening. If, evolutionarily speaking, we did not react within nanoseconds to the perceived threat of the tiger in the jungle as our progenitors did, we might not be here at all. When we perceive a biological threat, our brains short-circuit away from the thinking parts of our brain and the neural pathways head straight to the hypothalamus, in a sort of biological red-alert. This releases hormones that increase heart rate, perspiration, and blood flow. This is what the human body needs to move as quickly as possible away from danger.

Why Can Some Harass Anxiety for a Better Performance?

So what distinguishes those that can use anxiety to enhance performance from those that that find anxiety debilitating? Several things. First, a person with a traumatic childhood is likelier to be debilitatingly anxious than those that grew up in a supportive and nurturing environment. Also, genes play a significant role in how adaptive we are to stress and anxiety. Researchers have identified about 150 aberrations in DNA associated with anxiety of the less adaptive kind.  For example, a child with a parent who suffers from OCD is five times more likely to suffer from the syndrome themselves that a child in the general population. Also, nurture influences nature and vice versa; nervous pups born to a nervous dad experience some kind of trauma of their own, reacting to it more negatively than a normal baby mice would.

Jennifer De Francisco, MPA, MSW, LCSW is a couples counselor in the Newport Beach, Irvine, and Orange County area. She specializes in relationships and depression.

Please contact her at (949) 251-8797 to make an appointment.

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