Finding your anxiety’s sweet spot

We seem to be in the midst of an anxiety epidemic. Panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety and OCD – are thought to affect up to one in 10 people during their lifetime.

Many more people, while not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, are still prone to it:  In one study nearly one in 5 survey respondents reported feeling anxious all or a lot of the time, and 4 in 10 experienced anxiety about their work.

But an anxious nature can also be an advantage – as long as it isn’t out of control. Sometimes heartspark’s philosophy is misinterpreted as simply “don’t worry, be happy,” but that’s not the case. There’s value in so-called ‘negative’ emotions, which have evolved for a purpose. Our capacity to feel shame warns us against doing things that would lead to being socially excluded. Anger can prompt us to stick up for ourselves. In the same way, anxiety prompts us to scan our lives for potential risks, big and small.

That means that calming yourself down is often the wrong thing to do.

Research has found that when participants interpreted their nerves as excitement (by saying “I’m excited!”) they gave better public presentations than those who tried to relax or tame their nerves.

Similarly, karaoke singers who first said “I am excited” scored an average of 81% on pitch, volume, and rhythm, compared with those who said “I am anxious” (69%) or “I am calm” (53%.) Owning the anxiety netted nearly 30% more success.

If you’re not anxious at all about an upcoming event, it probably means you don’t care. It’s only when anxiety becomes excessive and out of control that it starts to harm your performance. Psychologists refer to it as the anxiety “sweet spot.”

anxiety's sweet spot

One way to prevent anxiety from getting out of hand is to recognize its benefits. By seeing anxiety as your friend, you’re less likely to fall into a spiral of fear, which is the horrible state of getting anxious about being anxious.

To help you see anxiety as a super-power to be tamed rather than as a weakness to be corrected, here are specific advantages that anxiety brings.

  • Anxiety can help you make better decisions – because you assess all the options.
  • It makes you quicker to rely on your instincts – anxiety plus training equals optimal performance.
  • Feeling anxious is a sign that you’re intelligent – people who score higher on measures of anxiety also tend to perform better on intelligence tests.

How to hit the sweet spot

Let’s take some common symptoms of anxiety and learn how to balance them on the sweet spot.

Excessive hesitation

Putting off doing something we don’t want to do is natural – but anxious people hold back from doing things they do want to do unless they can be 100 per cent certain of a positive outcome.

The key is to shift your thinking to recognize the value of acting in spite of uncertainty, versus the harm of not acting at all.

  • Use the three-question technique. Ask yourself “What’s the best possible outcome?” “What’s the worst possible outcome?” “What’s the most likely/realistic outcome?
  • Then, ask yourself how you’d cope if the worstdid  Who would you ask for help?
  • Practice making more small spur of the moment decisions – such as changing your usual lunch order or commute route – to build your confidence that even if you make the ‘wrong’ choice, the world won’t end.

Rumination

Rumination – brooding too much on an event in the past – often takes the form of self-criticism. You berate yourself for minor mistakes, replay social interactions that you think you handled poorly, and wonder what the other people involved think of you. And while it can easily become a habit, habits can be broken.

  • Be kind to yourself when you make a mistake – we’re all human. Think of a few simple ways you can make it right and/or avoid the same mistake in the future. Act on those now if you can and then move on.
  • Try to develop a ‘non-stick’ mind, that lets mistakes go. Mindfulness meditation may be helpful, but you don’t need to sit in silence with your eyes closed – watch leaves flutter in the wind or feel the floor beneath your feet, to redirect your attention to the present moment.
  • If you catch yourself dwelling in the past, try spending two minutes with something mentally demanding – like Sudoku, which is such a successfully proven distraction method, some doctors have suggested it could be prescribed to patients in lieu of pain relief.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism – a need to perform flawlessly at all times – can be highly destructive, leaving you dissatisfied with any achievement. Perfectionists can also spend too much time sweating the small stuff, while avoiding larger issues – leading to even greater anxiety, down the line.

  • Set limits on overly persistent behavior – don’t allow yourself to check documents excessively, and stop for a break after spending 30 minutes working on one task. This will give you some psychological distance before deciding how much more effort it’s wise to devote.
  • Invest time and energy in areas that aren’t performance-orientated, such as volunteering or enjoying a hobby.
  • Allow yourself to stop when a non-critical task, whether at work or home, is ‘good enough’, even if it is not perfect. The more you practice letting go, the more you will get done
  • Consider my go-to mantra: Done is better than perfect.

Fear of criticism

Wanting to be liked and accepted is good unless you feel so threatened by criticism that you avoid feedback and challenges, or if criticism sends you spiraling into weeks of rumination.

  • Identify three times in the past when hearing negative feedback helped you correct a small problem before it became too big.
  • Don’t interpret a neutral response as negative: for example, don’t assume that just because someone can’t meet with you, that they don’t like you or your ideas.
  • To negate or validate a concern, find someone you trust and ask for their opinion on how/where you might improve.

Avoidance /procrastination

We’re all guilty of this sometimes. But in people with chronic anxiety procrastination can become extreme and sets up a vicious cycle, causing further stress.

  • Make a list of all the things you’ve been avoiding, and set yourself a 30-day project – where you take a small step towards at least one of them every day.
  • Set aside a weekly ‘power hour’ to tackle small tasks that don’t have a fixed deadline and that you’d usually allow to build up.
  • Break down large tasks so that you have less urge to avoid beginning them. Cleaning out a drawer rather than a whole room. Write the first 500 words of that report. Once you get in the flow, you may find you achieve more than you set out for.

Being anxious is usually thought of as destructive but used correctly it can actually be an advantage.

If this sounds like the type of conversation you would like to join into, and you live in the greater Portland metropolitan area, come on over to a heartspark Connections. Consider yourself personally invited!