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How is Performance Affected by Anxiety - Can Anxiety Actually help?

Updated: Sep 25, 2022

Imagine I had a magic wand and could wave away anxiety so you’d never experience it again – would you want me to wave it?

I ask variations of this question frequently when I am working with anxious clients, and the most common answer is:

“yes please!!”

But what would life without any anxiety be like? Would we really be better off?

Back in 1908 a couple of psychologists called Yerkes and Dodson demonstrated a relationship between pressure and performance when they found that mild electrical shocks motivated rats to complete a maze. But, if the shocks became too strong then the animals became too stressed and were unable to complete the task (poor rats - I'm sure that such experiments wouldn't get past the ethics review these days!).

These experiments showed that escalating arousal levels can improve focus and motivation but only to a point, after which the increasing levels have a detrimental effect. This results in a relationship with a bell-shaped curve, like this:

Currently there are thousands of teenagers in the midst of exam season. Few people reach adulthood without ever having had to sit an exam at some point, so that pre-exam anxiety that they’re currently facing on a near daily basis is something that the majority of us have experienced and can relate to. If we didn’t experience any anxiety at all about the upcoming exam then we might be less likely to prepare sufficiently well, becoming distracted or bored, and consequently we may perform less well than we might have done had we had a little more focus and preparation. However, if we are too anxious then our ability to concentrate and recall relevant information may be impaired and we may equally under-perform. If we can strike a balance and inhabit the optimum zone, then our performance will be sharp and we will do our best.

You'll notice from the diagram above that the optimum zone is outside of the comfort zone...we have to stretch ourselves in order to grow, develop and reach our peak performance. But, by it's very definition, it is uncomfortable and movement into this zone will be accompanied by challenging thoughts (eg "I'm going to fail") and feelings (eg nausea, butterflies, shaking). When we are in the optimum zone our stress response will release adrenaline and cortisol (ie we start to move into fight or flight mode) and in the short term this is helpful (as it is designed to be) helping us to think and see more clearly, and preparing our bodies for action.

Ideally we want to be cycling between the comfort zone (to relax and recourperate) and stretching ourselves in the optimum zone (to perform) but modern life can put us under unrelenting pressure and result in us trying to operate outside our comfort zones over the long term - this is when we can start getting dangerously close to exhaustion and burn out.

This doesn't just apply to students doing exams...we can all benefit by paying attention to how we're feeling and reflecting upon where we are on the curve to help us start to think about pacing ourselves throughout the days, weeks and months. "Chunking" work and tasks so that we include regular breaks, along with allowing ourselves proper down time in evenings and at the weekend, can help us develop flexibility between the comfort and stretching zones.

When it comes to productivity, we can end up achieving more by doing what seems like less because we are operating at higher performance levels and with greater efficiency when we are working if we're inhabiting the optimum zone rather than the areas under the right hand side of the curve.


Less is More!

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