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Do We Need Anxiety? Thoughts for Entering the New Year

Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice ...Read More

Remember the last time you listened to a great piece of music? For some pieces, the music gradually increases in intensity until it reaches a crescendo, the loudest or most exciting part, and then resolves.

As the music builds and fades, so does your own feeling of excitement. A crescendo is like the climax of a story, or the inspirational moment in a good speech.

Maybe you’ve also heard a song with no crescendo. It doesn’t go anywhere. Without a rise in intensity music might be relaxing, but it’s often boring.

On the other hand if music were all crescendo, the constant loudness would be too much. You would want a way to turn down the volume.

Anxiety can motivate.

Anxiety is like that – a little is a good thing. Anxiety can help you get work done on time and make thoughtful decisions about money. It can help you pay your bills, clean the kitchen, give a presentation, or take a test. Anxiety helps you get started and make things happen – especially things you don’t really want to do.

Without intensity, life would feel flat. Important tasks wouldn’t seem urgent. People with little energy or intensity often fee depressed or disconnected with life.

People with AD/HD can also have trouble building the intensity they need to motivate themselves and get started on tasks and projects. Often their efforts are scattered and their energy dissipated.

But too much anxiety is exhausting.

Peak performers know how to find the “sweet spot”

Peak performers, like athletes and musicians, know about crescendo. They know how to motivate themselves to do their best. They also know how to tell when they’ve reached their peak, and how to keep their energy from turning into anxiety.

In 1908, Harvard Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson proposed that performance and arousal, as they called it, are related. The more aroused you are, the better you perform – to a point. After that point, you become anxious and don’t perform as well. A little anxiety motivates, but too much gets in your way.

Research shows that we need some anxiety to feel energized and motivated – and to warn us when there’s a problem. But too much leaves us feeling overwhelmed and frazzled, like there’s danger around every corner.

Know your “sweet spot” for the New Year

As we move into the new year, you might be setting goals about getting things done, having fun, getting organized, losing weight, or spending time with friends. Some people are inspired by their New Year’s goals. Their goals provide just enough motivation to make important lifestyle changes.

But for others, moving into the New Year seems overwhelming. Resolutions and expectations – especially if you’re already falling short of what you had hoped for – create anxiety.

To lessen the anxiety, you need three things. First, you need to notice when your motivation, excitement, and energy are building to a crescendo. Second, you need a signal to let you know when you’ve reached the peak, before the feelings get too intense. And third, you need a way to stop right at the sweet spot.

How to get to the crescendo

How do you tell when you’re at just the right spot – when you’ve reached the crescendo?

If you’re someone who feels like you can barely hear the music, you might be struggling with low arousal. With low arousal, you might feel tired, unmotivated, spacey, distracted or even depressed. As you move into the new year, your task is to find what motivates and energizes you. At this time of year, I help many of my clients put together the building blocks of motivation.

If you’re someone who feels like the music is too loud, you might be motivated – but anxiety gets in your way. Signs of anxiety are physical tension; feelings of worry, fear, and panic; fretting or racing thoughts; and a focus on the future or the past. I help clients notice these indicators of anxiety earlier along the performance curve, when they are much easier to quiet.

Learn to be a peak performer

There are many ways to move from anxiety to peak performance. You can find a way that works for you by following these research-based principles.

1. Be positive. A common New Year’s resolution is to “be less anxious.” A more positive goal might be to “stay calm” or “enjoy my mornings.”

2. Be specific. Research shows that change is more likely when you focus on one particular part of a problem rather than something more general. If you’re trying to create a calm morning, you might start your morning 10 minutes of meditation. If you’re trying to stay calm in a conversation, you might take 2 full breaths before responding.

3. Start small. Break down your goal by thinking about a particular situation or time of day. For example your goal might be, “Step outside and breathe the fresh air first thing every morning” or “When I hear a request, take three deep breaths before responding”.

We do need anxiety – but just enough to stay safe, motivated, and do our best. A little anxiety is a good thing. Too much is overwhelming. Just as the intensity of music affects our joy in listening, how anxious we feel affects our joy in life.

Learning how to enjoy the moments of crescendo – or turn down the volume when the intensity is too much – are the keys to doing well and feeling good in the new year.

Keep Reading By Author Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.
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