If you use it properly anxiety can help you. If you don’t, it can defeat you. If you never feel it, you have a real problem.
The right anxiety used correctly can help you to focus on the task at hand and to work harder to succeed. If you are moderately anxious about failing you will be more motivated to do what it takes to succeed.
In excess, anxiety might cause you to freeze up or to lose focus. Too much anxiety can cripple you, cause you to worry so much that you focus more on the emotion and less on the job.
If you are facing a difficult or challenging task and you feel no anxiety you are showing that you do not understand the stakes and do not see the possibility of failure. This complex of emotions will most likely cause you to slack off.
When it comes to anxiety, you can feel too much, too little or just enough.
The question is: how do you find what the cognitive psychologists call the sweet spot? Or better, how do you find what Aristotle called the golden mean between the extremes of too much and too little.
Cognitive psychologists are hard at work on the issue. They would do well to consult with Aristotle. After all, the philosopher defined ethical behavior as the ability to find the mean between two extremes.
When defining bravery, Aristotle declared that it existed somewhere between trigger-happy and gun-shy.
We know that it’s wrong to be trigger-happy. We know that it’s wrong to be gun-shy. We are not so sure that we know whether an action is brave or not.
The same applies to emotions. As Aristotle had it, it’s wrong to be angry all the time, and it’s wrong never to be angry. Ethical behavior involves showing anger at the right time in the right place under the right circumstances.
How do you know when you have reached the sweet spot? How do you know when you are being courageous and when you are being trigger-happy or gun-shy?
Unfortunately, you don’t. You are left to rely on your own good judgment, judgment forged in the crucible of experience.
And, of course, you cannot really know whether you have hit the sweet spot until you have acted, courageously or not. If it is impossible to know before the fact, then your actions, even your ethical actions, must always contain an element of anxiety.
The results of your actions will tell you whether you were being brave, cowardly, or reckless.
The principle applies to anxiety. You can be frenetic and frantic; you can be lackadaisical and detached, or you can be intent and focused. Only by translating your anxiety into effective action can you know whether you have hit the sweet spot.
Melinda Beck reports in the Wall Street Journal:
Somewhere between checked out and freaked out lies an anxiety sweet spot, some researchers say, in which a person is motivated to succeed yet not so anxious that performance takes a dive. This moderate amount of anxiety keeps people on their toes, enables them to juggle multiple tasks and puts them on high alert for potential problems.
The cognitive-ethical approach does not, one must emphasize, see anxiety as something to medicate.
Obviously, some anxiety is so extreme that it requires medication. Yet, the extremes should not make the rule.
Cognitivists and ethicists are suggesting that we ought first consider that anxiety can be useful, and that can direct you toward success and achievement.
It's better to be positive than to think that anxiety is an emotional pathogen that must be eliminated, no matter what.
Anxiety is especially self-defeating when people focus on the fear itself, rather than the task at hand. The best way to stay in the "sweet spot," Dr. Moser says, is to channel the anxiety into productive activity—like studying and acing the test. "I tell a lot of my patients that Nike really has a great slogan—Just Do It," he says.
Turning anxiety into action is also a major component of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is widely seen as the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders. Identifying and challenging self-defeating thoughts, and gradually facing the source of fears, can provide more lasting relief than antianxiety medications, psychologists say.
Exactly right: don’t focus on the fear; turn anxiety into action. Direct your attention away from the anxiety and toward the situation at hand. The more you know about the situation and the less you are focused on your emotional state the more effective you will be.
If you are worried about an upcoming test or report or project chances are that you have cause for worry. But it does not mean that you need to take a pill to calm down. It means that you need to work harder, study harder, prepare better.
Cognitive therapists consider medication a short-term fix, at best. At worst, they see it as a way to avoid the problem.
"If you have to take Xanax to get on the elevator, you never learn that the elevator isn't something to be afraid of," says Dr. Josephson. "You have to embrace the anxiety to overcome it."
That is often how psychologists help performers overcome stage fright or athletes snap out of a slump. Relaxation techniques such as meditation and deep breathing can bring a toxic level of anxiety down, but harnessing it can ultimately be more effective. Rehearsing a scenario repeatedly can help manage and defuse the fear.
Clearly cognitive and ethical approaches are far superior to insight-oriented psychoanalytically-inspired treatments. As you might imagine, Freudian treatment has an entirely different approach to anxiety.
If you are suffering from anxiety and you consult a Freudian therapist he will see your anxiety in terms of unacknowledged guilt. You are anxious because you fear that you will be caught and punished.
For what, pray tell? Sometimes for your criminal acts, but mostly for your depraved motives and criminal intentions.
Freudian theory posits that you are caught in a guilt/punishment narrative. It does not see you actively engaged in confronting a real challenge or even a real danger. Freudian therapists are more likely to recommend that you postpone confronting a difficult challenge.
If you are anxious about the golf tournament or your next interview Freud therapy will want you to understand that you are feeling anxious because the current situation reminds you of a past situation where you cheated or lied or wanted to do something that was very, very bad.
It will try to induce you to embrace your guilt, or better, to misread your anxiety as guilt. Then, it will teach you how to palliate it by doing penance, by punishing yourself. It will want you to perform acts of moral self-flagellation… like criticizing yourself and telling yourself that you are not worthy.
How well do you think that this therapy will prepare you for your next presentation or for the big game? More likely it is setting you up for failure... and for further psychoanalysis.