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Is anxiety always bad for you?

Feeling anxious before a challenging event such as a job interview, a presentation or an exam is very common and considered normal. However, anxiety is generally viewed as ‘bad’ and as an indicator that the person is not coping with the task at hand. This article aims to debunk this myth and point out that in some people a healthy level of anxiety is precisely what prompts them into action thus improving their performance.

Healthy versus unhealthy Anxiety

To begin with, it is important to distinguish healthy from unhealthy anxiety in order not to underestimate the latter. Healthy anxiety is adaptive in that it makes you better able to cope, while unhealthy anxiety is maladaptive as it prevents people from functioning adequately in their environment and it interferes with their ability to cope.One can establish whether anxiety is healthy or unhealthy based on the outcomes.

Different strokes for different folks

It is important to remember that different people adopt different strategies when faced with a challenge. You are undoubtedly familiar with the distinction between optimistic and pessimistic people: the former have a positive outlook on life and always envisage the best possible outcome, while the latter have a tendency to view the negative side of things and focus on the worst case scenario. For a long time, it was believed that being an optimist maximised one’s chances of doing well while being a pessimist jeopardised one’s chances of success. However, more recent research has shown that this distinction might be too simplistic. Instead, when faced with a challenging situation, people tend to adopt one of 3 cognitive approaches:

1. strategic optimism: people who adopt this strategy are optimist at heart and feel that things will go well for them. They have high expectations about the outcome of the challenge based on previous performance, prepare little because they experience little anxiety and stay very calm throughout. This relaxed state of mind does have a positive effect on their performance and is therefore an adaptive approach.

2. defensive pessimism: people who use this strategy are pessimist at heart and spend a lot of time imagining the worst possible scenario. However, the close consideration of things that could possibly go wrong results in them being better prepared for the challenge. For example, a defensive pessimist preparing to give a talk might foresee that he will get thirsty or his mouth will get dry due to stress, so he will take some water with him to the podium. Or he might fear that his mind will go blank, so he will rehearse his presentation endless times and prepare some note cards to support him in the chance that this will happen. In spite of the fact that defensive pessimists have low expectations about the outcome, this cognitive strategy leads to better performance just as much as being a strategic optimist and is therefore adaptive too. In support of this claim, one study has shown that when defensive pessimists were reassured about doing anagram and puzzle tasks, their performance decreased compared to a group who were not reassured. These results indicate that encouragement disabled their negativity thus eliminating its adaptive function.

3. self-handicapping pessimism: the primary aim of people who adopt this strategy is to avoid anxiety. While they share the same goal as defensive pessimists, they are so scared of failure that imaginary obstacles prevent them for reaching out to success, so in order to reduce anxiety the avoid or escape the actual stressful situation. An example of such behaviour is that of a student who claims not to be ready for an exam on account of having missed many classes, and therefore decides not to sit it. Skipping classes might be part of the strategy as the student ‘builds his case’ as to why he/she cannot sit the exam, thus producing evidence and excuses to hide the real underlying reason: the fear of failure. By not sitting the exam, he/she is no longer responsible for having failed: if he/she had attended classes and attempted the exam, he/she might have succeeded. The possibility of success is better than the certainty of failure. Out of the three strategies considered, this is the only maladaptive one as it is ‘disabling’ rather than enabling.

The 4 Fs of the stress response

The first theories about the stress response postulate that when faced with a difficult or dangerous situation, a person will either get ready to fight or flight. To these two basic responses, face and freeze have been added. All these responses to stress can be applied to the 3 approaches considered above as follows.

  • Strategic optimists don’t experience stress so they simply ‘face‘ the situation or task at hand.
  • On the other hand, defensive pessimistsfight‘ the experienced stress by trying to reduce it with adequate preventive measures. Both strategic optimists and defensive pessimists engage directly with the stressful situation.
  • Finally, self-handicapping pessimists either ‘flight‘, take themselves out of the stressful situation (e.g. they join a competition, but end up not participating for fear of losing), or ‘freeze‘, they experience such high levels of stress that they become paralysed or unable to act (e.g. a student is so stressed about the amount of exam revision that he/she ends up not studying all). Self-handicapping pessimists basically dis-engage with the situation or task, which in many cases leads to failure.

Disambiguation

It is important to clarify that the same individual might adopt a different approach depending on the situation. For example, while a person might feel very relaxed about having to give a speech, he/she might feel anxious about having to take an exam, or vice versa. So approaches are specific and often based on the sum of our experiences with and cognitions about a given situation or task.

The reassuring thing is that by working on our cognitions, we can change our perceived ability to cope with a situation or task and slowly build our confidence in dealing with it. This means that we can progress from being a self-handicapping pessimist to becoming a strategic optimist. In some cases, it is also possible to re-gress as a negative experience with a task or situation can influence future responses to similar events. In support of this claim, one study found that while it is true that defensive pessimists have lower self-steem than strategic optimists when they begun college, by the end of college the self-esteem of defensive pessimists was equal to that of strategic optimists, indicating that any potential disadvantage due to low self-esteem is only temporary.

Everything in moderation!

In conclusion, for some people anxiety is a necessary evil: worrying motivates them to prepare better for the task at hand which in turn improves their performance. They take all preventive measures available to them to prevent failure and to pre-empt foreseeable obstacles.

If this article has helped you to think more positively about the anxiety that you might have experienced, I’d like to hear from you!

About Francesca Stregapede

After pursuing a degree in Psychology, I further explored the relationship between neurochemistry and behaviour in a Masters in Brain Imaging and Cognitive neuroscience. I write about various areas of Psychology as well as articles at the interface between Neuroscience and Nutrition as I believe that nutrition has a huge impact not only on our physical wellbeing but also on our psychological states.

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