Being a little nervous from time to time gets a bad rap. Amid all the talk about meditation, calm, wellness, and mindfulness, it can be forgotten that being a little on edge is actually an evolved response to stress — and that there are performance benefits to feeling a prickle of anxiety now and again. A new study from the University of Toronto has discovered that, when it comes to the workplace, being a bit anxious goes a long way; high functioning anxiety can help you to be more productive in the office. In small doses, it appears to help workers stay focused and maintain their motivation, without negative consequences or distractions.
Of course, this is a very different thing from having anxiety, which can negatively affect quality of life overall, nevermind productivity — and if your anxiety is getting in the way of your ability to live your life to the fullest, there are many resources available to you to help.
But if you're experiencing mild anxiety from time to time, you might be overlooking some of the benefits. "Anxiety, like other emotions, is designed to provide you with information about your environment," Dr. Adam Gonzalez, Founding Director of the Mind-Body Clinical Research Center at Stony Brook Medicine, tells Bustle. "When you experience anxiety, it is often in response to an actual or perceived threat. At low or moderate levels, anxiety can help increase productivity — you might get hyper-focused and adaptively respond to external demands (threats)." That's what anxiety has evolved to do. We feel it in response to situations that offer some kind of problem: a challenging job, a tight deadline, a high bar to clear in our performance review this month.
This is the same reaction we would have once had to predators in the wild or potentially dangerous physical altercations, hundreds of thousands of years ago. And Dr. Gonzalez says it's not necessarily a bad thing. "Anxiety can motivate and push you to respond to different demands," he notes. It's part of what makes us study hard and keep pushing even when we'd rather be sitting watching Netflix.
However, too much anxiety at work or at home isn't a recipe for success. "When anxiety is high, you might feel very overwhelmed, shut down and avoid the demands," Dr. Gonzalez says, which may be helpful in the short term but not in the future. A bit of anxiety can kick you forward, but too much can paralyze you and stop you from being efficient — or indeed doing anything at all. So how can you figure out whether your anxiety levels are helping or hindering your life, professional or otherwise?
Too much anxiety, says Dr. Gonzalez, is often evident in physical symptoms. "When anxiety is very high, you might notice a surge in physical symptoms like racing or pounding heart, sweating, trembling, difficulty catching your breath, headaches and stomaches." But even if you don't feel all of those things, it can also show up in detrimental ways in your behavior. "Difficulties with falling or staying asleep; increase in worries and other unhelpful thoughts; feeling paralyzed; and, interpersonal difficulties or shutting out family and friends" are all behaviors that, Dr. Gonzalez tells Bustle, can indicate you're too anxious in general.
Harness what you can about your feelings of pressure to push you forward. And monitor yourself, so that you can see the point at which normal levels of anxiety might flip over into excess. In those moments, have a game plan. "Stop, breathe and think about a more helpful way to respond," says Dr. Gonzalez. "Our thoughts can often get the best of us — we might think something horrible will happen or that we are not able to do something well, when in reality, we do not know the outcome." Taking the sting out of those thoughts can be tricky, but with psychotherapy and calming techniques, you can manage them.