Could Anxiety Be Your Secret Weapon?

Stress is the malaise of modern life. But what if one of the worst things in your life became one the best? Lizzie Pook explores the idea of positive anxiety

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by Grazia |
Published on

At least once a week I'll find myself battling a sudden, shocking breathelessness. It comes on swiftly, out of nowhere, with a fizzling undercurrent of nervous energy that seems to crackle from my fingers and toes like small jolts of electricity. It keeps me up at night. It leaves me distracted in meetings. It makes me unsettled, under-confident and wary of new situations. It is anxiety, and it has been part of my life for well over a decade now.

I've always thought of my susceptibility to stress and anxiety as one of my biggest flaws. It's the albatross around my neck; the thing that has made me weak, unhinged, unappealing to new employers and undesirable to prospective partners. But what is this was all wrong? What if, this year, I decided to reframe how I see my anxiety and transform it into one of my best assets instead? Because, as it turns out, stress and anxiety are not all bad. In fact, evidence is beginning to stack up that there is such a thing as positive stress and, believe it or not, it can be a key factor for living well.

Stress is a word many of us use on an almost-daily basis: 'Work is just SO stressful at the moment'; 'My boss is totally stressing me out right now'. But the fact is, these stressors are mostly manageable, and it's in these instances that stress can actually be a positive thing. A recent study from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business found that a stressful job can actually be good for your health - when combined with a high level of control in decision-making. Researchers studied thousands of workers in their sixties over seven years and found that those in high-stress roles, in which they also felt they had 'freedom and control', were 34 percent less likely to die than those in less stressful jobs.

'Anxiety is a universal emotion and the experience of stress is a normal and inevitable part of life,' says Ruth Anderson, director of MiND HQ and lead psychologist with the Great Britain Cycling Team. 'A certain level of anxiety can be good for individuals as it can drive us to meet challenges,' she adds. 'When anxious and in a "flight or fight response" {when hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released because of fear, raising our blood pressure and heart rate and preparing us physically to confront impending threats}, we are more guarded, less naïve, more motivated, hyper-alert, and physiologically stronger. It has been well established that in elite sport, for example, experiencing a level of anxiety can actually facilitate you to perform at your very best.'

This applies in everyday life too. A tool called the Yerkes-Dodson model, developed over 100 years ago, shows how a certain level of pressure (or stress) can help us perform to our optimal potential. But this drops away if the pressure is too little (ie when we get bored during mundane or thankless tasks) or too much (when we get overwhelmed by the stress of an overbearing colleague, for example). There's even a term for this correct balance: eustress - meaning the 'good' type of stress that motivates us to continue working. That's what we should all be striving for.

Like all emotions, remember there is a purpose to stress

I have often felt - when I lie awake, staring at the clock next to my bed blinking 03:00 in the darkness - that stress and anxiety has changed me irrevocably as a person; that not a week will go by when my brain is not plagued by images of my sister being hit by a bus, or my mum being felled by a heart attack in the small hours of the morning. For a long, long time my stress and anxiety have made me feel like a bad, unworthy, unhealthy person. But, much to my sheer elation, I might be wrong about this too. In her hugely popular TED Talk How To Make Stress Your Friend, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explores how changing they way we think about stress can actually us healthier. She says moderate stress leads to cell growth in the brain's learning centres and a strengthening of the heart muscles. And, she argues, if we can learn not to be afraid of our stress and to think of it in 'friendly' terms - as something that will do us all good in the long run - it can have a hugley positive impact on us.

In fact, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that, out of almost 29,000 people and death records they studied, those who reported having high levels od stress and who believed stress had a bad impact on their health, had a whopping 43 percent increased risk of death. On the other hand, those who experienced a lot of stress but did not perceive its effects as negative were among the least likely to die.

And as for thinking we're 'bad' people if we're anxious, recent research has also shown that a certain level of stress and anxiety can actually make us into better people. Research from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research for example, suggests that those of us with anxiety are better in crisis situations because our brains are hyper-alert and poised to react to threats in whip-fast tine. Studies carried out by PSL Research University in France have also found that those with anxiety are better at reading negative emotions in other people, and research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that those with mild anxiety are seen as more trustworthy than others. Hurrah!

So how can you make your stress and anxiety work beneficially for you? 'Be proactive in exposing yourself to anxiety-provoking situations,' suggests Anderson. 'Don't protect yourself from a challenge. Gradual exposure to anxiety is critical to leaning how to thrive under pressure.' Indeed, it is thought that people who are exposed to small but regular amounts of stress can actually make themselves immune to these situations - something known as 'stress inoculation'.

'Like all emotions, remember that there is a purpose to stress,' adds psychotherapist Hilda Burke. 'Perhaps it's telling us we need to slow down, step back, evaluate.' Like McGonigal, Burke encourages her clients to 'befriend' their stress. 'Rather than running away from it or, even more damaging, worrying about the stress before it appears, I remind them to gently get to know it,' she says. 'Often it's a question of building up confidence - to remind ourselves that we have dealt with and come through stressful situations in the past. It's important to hold in mind that the stress will not annihilate you, and in some cases be a real force for good.'

So in 2017, I will not be paralysed by my anxiety. I will not be bowed by its toxic nature. I will not stress about my stress, either. Instead, I will try to accept it, embrace it even, and remember that when the balance is just right, my nervous nature could actually br doing me the world of good. There's nothing stressful about that.

READ MORE: A Stressful Job Might Actually Be Good For Your Health

READ MORE: Emma Stone Reveals That Her Anxiety Is What Sparked Her Acting Career

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