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HomeHealthcareThe right dose of anxiety can improve performance and avoid risky situations

The right dose of anxiety can improve performance and avoid risky situations


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All my adult life, I tried to avoid driving.

I could cite all sorts of noble motives: concern for the environment, a desire to save money, the health benefits gained by walking or biking.

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But my main motivation is that I’m anxious.

What if I did something stupid and accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake? What if a little child suddenly ran out in the middle of the street? What if another driver was distracted or enraged?

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By 2020 I had already managed to go eight years without taking up directing, despite earning my driver’s license when I was still in high school.

Then the pandemic arrived.

After a year cooped up in our Manhattan neighborhood, my small family of three longed to see new sights.

I booked a place for us to stay in the Adirondacks, a three-hour drive from New York. And, for the first time in my life, I enrolled in a driving school to take formal classes.

That first day, I arrived feeling sick and scared, tense and my brain on high alert. But the instructor assured me we weren’t going to die — we weren’t going to drive fast enough for that, he explained — and then he told me something no one had ever said to me: “Fear never leaves you.”

You learn to control fear, he explained. You learn to be afraid enough to be alert and pay attention to your surroundings, but not afraid enough to be too hesitant.

The notion that I didn’t need to eliminate my anxiety completely made me feel more at ease. Experts say that having some anxiety, especially when you’re faced with a stressful situation, isn’t necessarily bad. It may even benefit you.

See why.

The right dose can improve your performance

Anxiety is an uncomfortable emotion that is often fueled by uncertainty. It can generate intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear, not only in relation to stressful events, but also in everyday situations. There are usually also physical symptoms, such as an elevated heart rate, muscle tension, rapid breathing, sweating, and fatigue.

Excessive anxiety can be debilitating. But normal anxiety is designed to keep us safe, experts say.

“The emotion of anxiety and the underlying physiological stress response evolved to protect us,” said neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, author of “Good Anxiety.”

In her book, Suzuki explains that managing stress can be more helpful than eliminating it. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, a theory that originated in the early 20th century from experiments on mice, increasing levels of cognitive arousal, or stress, can improve performance — but only up to a point. Represented by a mountain-shaped curve, the theory shows that after the curve reaches its apex, higher levels of stress can cause performance to drop.

When anxiety is excessive, Suzuki said, it tends to be less helpful. The first step in managing the anxiety that is harming you is recognizing when you are feeling overly anxious and trying to calm down.

“The #1 tip I give people is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – the neurons that can lower your heart rate and help you feel calmer – with the help of deep breathing,” she said. “This is a very useful tool to rely on.”

Deep breathing can be practiced anytime and anywhere, she said, whether you’re standing in a line, sitting in a classroom, or, as is my case, driving a car.

Physical activity — even something as simple as walking outside — can raise the brain’s serotonin and dopamine levels, Suzuki said, and it also helps bring anxiety down to a more manageable level.

A certain degree of anxiety can help people anticipate obstacles, remain prudent, and be organized, said Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist in Boston and author of “How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.” Yourself: Silence Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety

But, she said, if anxiety is making you uncomfortable too often, getting in the way of your day-to-day life and preventing you from living the life you want, it indicates a need for additional help, ideally from a mental health professional.

It can help you recognize what’s not working

Philadelphia psychologist Seth Gillihan, author of “The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Rumination and Worry,” said he often felt anxious before starting his workday. At the time, he was concerned with controlling his anxiety, not investigating what was causing it. He finally realized that the problem wasn’t the anxiety itself.

“I had been working for a long time in a way that wasn’t sustainable,” said Gillihan, whose health problems sometimes get in the way of a full day’s work.

He then reduced his office hours and began spending more time writing and recording podcasts, two of his favorite things to do.

Now he feels grateful that he heard what his body was trying to communicate to him, rather than trying to suppress those sensations.

“A lot of the suffering that anxiety causes us comes from the resistance we put up with anxiety,” he explained. “We tend to double our suffering when we get anxious and we also think ‘I need to stop being anxious.’

“I look at anxiety like an alarm – like a smoke detector, for example. A good alarm doesn’t go silent all the time.”

Accepting can help you face your fears

If you find yourself overestimating the risk of something terrible happening, start by acknowledging your anxiety and facing it objectively. That’s the recommendation of Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist at the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Chico, Calif., and author of “Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss.”

Try to remember that this is the emotional reaction that occurs when you predict bad things are going to happen, he said. It’s an irritation, an inconvenience—”almost as if my brain right now is a child having a tantrum.”

Be patient and gentle with yourself, he recommended, as you would with a friend. Take small, manageable steps to face your fears.

“This is an opportunity to learn to accept and tolerate anxiety,” he added.

Todd B. Kashdan, professor of psychology and director of the Wellness Laboratory at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, was working up the courage to finally try outdoor rock climbing in Arizona. He started out modestly, training on the rock-climbing wall at his gym.

On the first attempt he made outdoors, his hands were so sweaty that the chalk kept coming off. One of the guides presented you with a choice: you can stay on the ground – alone, in the middle of the desert – or you can climb, taking your anxiety with you.

“My heart was bursting,” said Kashdan, co-author of “The Upside of Your Dark Side,” a book on the usefulness of anger, anxiety and fear.

“But I had a very clear task to perform and I knew I could handle it with anxiety, because that expert guide told me that he had already done it himself, that people do it and that I was going to do it.”

Anxiety can promote responsibility

Anxious people tend to be careful and prudent, and according to Alice Boyes, author of “The Anxiety Toolkit”, they can channel these tendencies into a more conscious attitude.

“I’ve always been anxious myself,” she said. “He was the kind of kid who refused to go to summer camp or spend the night at other people’s houses. He kept getting a stomachache or something before school sports events.”

As an adult, she continued to worry that things might go wrong, but she also began making plans in case of emergencies. This helped to allay their fears and reduce the likelihood of very serious eventualities. When she leaves somewhere, for example, Boyes looks at the map first to see how to get to her destination and studies the surrounding streets to avoid the possibility of getting lost.

The goal is to come up with a plan that will help you reduce your fears and then stick to the plan.

In my case, preparing in advance was what ended up giving me the confidence to drive upstate. It took eight driving lessons, a last-minute text message to my instructor, and a rental car with advanced safety features.

Finally we packed our bags and left.

“Mommy is the driver!” said my 4-year-old daughter, sitting in the back seat.

“That’s right,” I replied, starting to feel a little proud of myself. “I’m the driver.”

Translation by Clara Allain

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