The Unexpected Benefits of Anxiety

Embracing your inner “healthy neurotic” is good for your career.

For that public presentation that you’re dreading, how would you feel if your live audience was replaced by mannequins? Do you think you’d feel as anxious? Probably not—who cares what they think, right?

So you feel calmer about the challenge, which is a comfortable state to be in. But when the big day comes, I bet you’d perform worse in front of the dummies than in front of your colleagues. Because it’s the anxiety—the fear of what might go wrong—that will motivate you to prepare the talk, and give you the adrenaline to give an energetic, engaging presentation.

Indeed, calming yourself down is often the wrong thing to do. Research by Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard Business School [pdf] found that when participants interpreted their nerves as excitement (for example, by saying to themselves “I’m excited!”), they gave better public presentations than those who tried to relax.

Calming yourself down is often the wrong thing to do.

If you’re not anxious at all about an upcoming test, it probably means you don’t care. It’s only when anxiety becomes excessive and out of control that it starts to harm your performance. Psychologists have known about this anxiety “sweet spot” for decades and it’s captured in the classic anxiety—performance curve shown below. To read more from Christian Jarrett, click here.