Appreciating Anxiety

Anxiety has a bad reputation. We often define anxiety as debilitating and uncomfortable, and see it as leading to avoidance of people, places, and things. Or maybe anxiety is what keeps you up at night, consequently impacting your ability to function the next day. However, the truth is, we all need some anxiety in order to operate. Like all emotions and mood, anxiety serves a purpose in motivating us for certain actions. Sometimes that purpose is to complete a task such as cleaning your apartment or submitting a project to your boss. Other times, it could be to keep you safe from dangerous situations or people. The key is managing your anxiety symptoms to bring them down, or in some cases up, to an optimal level, referred to as your window of tolerance. 

According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, there is an observed relationship between stress, or anxiety, and performance and functioning. In order to perform at our best, we need an optimal amount of stress. When your arousal levels begin to increase, to a point where it is excessive, performance decreases and functioning is impaired. On the other hand, when there is too little arousal or anxiety present, functioning is also impaired. This can show up as little to no sense of urgency or motivation to get something done. Think back to a time you felt apathetic towards a work or school task, it is likely you did not exactly feel a jolt of energy when thinking about what needed to be done in order to complete said task. In summary, too little or too much stress leads to impairment in some capacity. 

So, what do we do to put ourselves in that optimal position? This is where we revisit the concept of the window of tolerance. When learning adaptive coping skills for intense emotions or anxiety, we often look to decrease symptoms in order to live in a way that feels manageable. The first thing to become aware of are your warning signs. Can you tell when anxiety starts to cross the threshold from tolerable into distressing and panic-inducing? Perhaps it is helpful to use a rating scale from 0 to 10. For example, once you hit an 8/10, you are outside of the window and need to implement distress tolerance skills. Skills like box or paced breathing, body scan, or grounding exercises are likely to be effective here. You will know these skills are working when you do not climb to a 9 or 10 on the rating scale, or even better, when you feel yourself back within your window and closer to the optimal level of anxiety. 

What may be more challenging to do for some is to increase anxiety or stress when necessary to get something done. Too little stress can be a result of several different factors such as fatigue, depression, low interest, or generally low motivation. Getting to the optimal zone from a deprived place can be difficult for some because of the seemingly lack of control over these factors. Thus, the ability to operate at an optimal level in this case requires accumulating a different skillset over the long-term. This may include better understanding when you feel you operate at your best depending on time of day, amount of rest, or taking into account other external stressors that may be interfering with a specific task. 

The Yerkes-Dodson law can be helpful for a perspective shift when looking to better understand how anxiety serves us. While you may be seeking treatment with the goal of reducing or even eliminating anxiety, it is beneficial to know that this may not be entirely possible, or even wise. Of course, we do not want anxiety to control us and impair day-to-day functioning, but to attempt to eliminate it would be setting us up for disappointment as some level of anxiety is inevitable. Overall, learning to accept, and perhaps even appreciate anxiety, is an important step towards living most of life within the window of tolerance.  

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