Tuesday, January 7, 2014
From the Harvard Business Review Blog:
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At some level, it’s normal—adaptive even—to be anxious in our postindustrial era of pervasive uncertainty, where social and economic structures are undergoing continuous disruption and professional roles are constantly changing. According to Charles Darwin (who himself suffered from crippling agoraphobia), species that “fear rightly” increase their chances of survival. We anxious people are less likely to remove ourselves from the gene pool by, say, becoming fighter pilots.
An influential study conducted a hundred years ago by two Harvard psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, demonstrated that moderate levels of anxiety improve performance in humans and animals: too much anxiety, obviously, impairs performance, but so does too little. Their findings have been experimentally demonstrated in both animals and humans many times since then.
“Without anxiety, little would be accomplished,” David Barlow, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, has written. “The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops might not be planted. And we would all achieve that idyllic state long sought after in our fast-paced society of whiling away our lives under a shade tree. This would be as deadly for the species as nuclear war.”
So how do you find the right balance? How do you get yourself into the performance zone where anxiety is beneficial? That’s a really tough question. For me, years of medication and intensive therapy have (sometimes, somewhat) taken the physical edge off my nerves so I could focus on trying to do well, not on removing myself from the center of attention as quickly as possible. For those who choke during presentations to board members or pitches to clients, for example, but probably aren’t what you’d call clinically anxious, the best approach may be one akin to what Beilock has athletes do in her experiments: redirecting your mind, in the moment, to something other than how you’re comporting yourself, so you can allow the skills and knowhow you’ve worked so hard to acquire to automatically kick into gear and carry you through. Your focus should not be on worrying about outcomes or consequences or on how you’re being perceived but simply on the task at hand. Prepare thoroughly (but not too obsessively) in advance; then stay in the moment. If you’re feeling anxious, breathe from your diaphragm in order to keep your sympathetic nervous system from revving up too much. And remember that it can be good to be keyed up: the right amount of nervousness will enhance your performance.
Continue reading here.