Anxiety can save your life--in the right dosage. If an oncoming truck crosses the line of traffic and is heading straight for you, the collection of reflexes we call “anxiety” are all designed to prepare you for quick decisions and quickest action. A little anxiety can also be useful when buying a house or talking to your boss. Too much of a good thing can be bad, though, and that’s true of anxiety. Too much anxiety can make a person less functional.
A Little Is Good
Some professions bank on a little anxiety. Sports people, actors, speakers, test taker, sales people...many use the gifts of anxiety to give them special speed, wit and charm. Psychologists have created a bell-shaped curve, contrasting the level of anxiety with performance. At the top of that curve is an optimal level of anxiety to attain.
Here are some tips for using stress and anxiety:
- Ride the wave--enjoy the feelings of the increase heart and breath rate.
- Use stress as a motivator.
- Associate stress with success.
- Be attached to the process, not the outcome.
- Know that the anxiety, in the moment, could make you more powerful.
Biology of Good Anxiety
When a threat is perceived the body responds by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which is part of the autonomic nervous system and changes the body’s conditions to be prepared for a fight-or-flight situation. Blood pressure goes up and the pupils of the eyes dilate. More oxygen is available to the blood. More blood may be available to the muscles. Thus, the person may feel energized and alert.
Biology of Bad Anxiety
The complementary system to the sympathetic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system supports the body during times of calm. It allows for basic maintenance of the body, such as digestion. It allows lots of blood flow to all areas of the body. It regulates glands. It’s essential to long-term survival. This basic support is severely inhibited if the sympathetic nervous system is at play.
Anxiety becomes a health problem when it is chronic. Anxiety can slow digestion, a great way to divert energy to the brain in a pinch, but digestion needs to occur for nutrient absorption. The body may dump the contents of the lower G.I. tract in a state of anxiety instead of spending the time to take out all the nutrients possible, so over time, the person’s intake of nutrients may suffer. Similarly, prolonged anxiety can interfere with salivation, sexual arousal, and even the production of tears. There’s evidence that prolonged stress and anxiety can shorten a person’s life by inhibiting their immune system and making them more vulnerable to heart disease and cancer.
Anxiety and stress produce the hormone, cortisol, which can have many negative consequences: belly fat, impaired memory and over the long term it can contribute to cancer, heart disease and stroke. These are stiff penalties to pay for continued anxiety.
When Good Anxiety Becomes Bad Anxiety
A little anxiety gives a person a good complexion, a lot anxiety can lead to skin outbreaks. Where is that line between good anxiety and bad anxiety? It’s all about amount. It’s all about time. A person could feel anxiety every day and be fine if that anxiety was moderate and short lived. The body was meant to endure short bouts of anxiety. So how much is too much? Individuals vary, but signs of too much anxiety can be discovered with a check in with your body.
Check-in with the body once an hour. If these symptoms are present more than one hour, consecutively, there may be a problem.
- Fast heart rate
- Heart palpitations
- Extrasystole heartbeats (heart feels like it “flops” or has extra hard beats)
- Sweating in a cool room
- Fast breathing
- Cramping stomach
Another inventory would be of life circumstances that may be causing chronic anxiety.
- How often do you feel anxious?
- How anxious do you feel on a scale of 1 to 10?
- Does your anxiety limit you in any way?
- Do you believe you will feel the same tomorrow?
Sometimes people enjoy the rush of anxiety and do not realize or aren't realistic about how much anxiety they are experiencing. Being aware that anxiety can be destructive and being honest about the affects experienced can help keep the "good anxiety" at a safe level.
If daily stress becomes continuous, start with simple breathing exercises to bring down anxiety in the moment. Reduce the rate of breathing while increasing the depth. Yoga or meditation might help with this. Exercise and sleep are also good ways to bring down common anxiety that seems to be escalating. See a professional if anxiety can not be reduced by home remedies.