Anxiety – High, Low … or Medium?

By Henry Eff, PsyD

Do you wish you could get rid of all of your anxiety? No more racing heart, anxious thoughts, sweaty palms, worries, fears, trepidations, queasy upside-down stomachs? How comforting would it be to have NO anxiety …

  • before an exam
  • during a work presentation
  • meeting new people at a party
  • merging on to a highway
  • before the championship game against your fiercest rival

The thought of “turning off” our anxiety sounds liberating. While many of us wish we could snap our fingers and make it all go away, rather than fight our anxiety, we can turn it into a strength, as supported by Dr. Rosmarin’s new book, Thriving with Anxiety.

In fact, anxiety can serve as:

  • a warning sign for danger, keeping us alert, safe, and ready to respond.
    • Our flight-or-flight response protects us from danger and enables us to respond to crises faster, whether you’re a caveman fending off a lion or a parent watching your children.
  • an alert that change is needed.
    • Maybe your job is creating too much stress and burnout? Is your relationship with a significant other no longer healthy?
  • an indication that you want more for yourself.
    • Being anxious at a party shows a desire to meet others.
  • a way to improve performance.
    • A moderate level of anxiety can increase performance, as suggested by Yerkes-Dodson’s law (1908). For example, being anxious about a grade can help you on a test while nervous energy before a football game can improve your speed and tackling.

Consistent, overwhelming amounts of anxiety can definitely impede performance. At the same time, too little anxiety can be unmotivating. Therefore, we need to learn how to find moderation in our anxiety levels.

Think of anxiety like a stove. We typically don’t turn the dial of a stove all the way up or else the food will burn. However, turn it off completely and your food won’t cook. There are times where the burner, or our anxiety, is higher and that’s ok. Understanding the various temperatures of our anxiety vs. viewing it as an “on” or “off” mechanism is important. Once we can begin to recognize and label our various levels of anxiety, we can better manage it and learn how to use it to our advantage, or at least tolerate it. It’s all about turning the dial up and down versus on and off.

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