Is Optimal Anxiety Real and Can It Help Me?

By Alistair Trapnell

I was browsing the internet during a bout of procrastination and came across the term optimal anxiety. That can’t be right, I thought. I’ve always considered anxiety a negative emotion to either suffer through, suppress, or avoid entirely. How can even the slightest ounce of anxiety be considered good for you?

Well, according to psychologists, there is an optimal level of anxiety, known as the ‘anxiety sweet spot’, that can actually maximise success. Who knew? The idea comes from the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a theory which proposes that people reach their peak level of performance when they are under an intermediate level of arousal or anxiety. Too little or too much and people generally perform more poorly.

Optimizing Stress
Graph provided by cheerfulmonk

Still, I thought, that’s all well and good, but there’s no way this applies to me. But then I started to unpack the idea further.

As an actor and singer, I’m often told that a few nerves are a good thing. They can motivate you and even elevate your performance. The adrenaline pumping through your veins is your body’s way of preparing you for a possible threat. On the other hand, too many nerves and my throat dries, my jaw clenches, and I’m knocked over by a wave of nausea and the sudden urge to flee. Not ideal when you have to go out on stage and sing for an hour and a half.

After a good performance, I feel depleted and drained as I come down from the adrenaline rush. It doesn’t sound pleasant, but it’s one of the best feelings in the world, because I know I have given my all to the audience. It’s like the day after an intense workout. Your muscles ache and getting off the couch is a constant battle between your mind and body, and yet the pain is satisfying because you know your muscles are repairing and will grow stronger. The day after a poor performance, however, all I want to do is lie in bed with the covers over my head and wallow in self-pity. It’s not a great feeling. Believe me.

So how do you find that happy medium between too much anxiety and not enough?

Well, let me just say that until recently I never thought of myself as an anxious person. But as I get older (I just turned 27, three years away from 30, ahhhhh!), I’m starting to recognise my little habits and coping mechanisms as direct responses to anxiety.

As a kid, I dealt with anxiety by escaping into my imagination. Often, I would project myself into a future where I was a famous singer or actor promoting my latest album or film. I created all sorts of scenarios in my head so I could avoid facing my current predicament. At the time it seemed harmless, but as an adult, I have sometimes let opportunities slip by because I’m too afraid to put myself out there, choosing to live in my fantasies rather than actively chase my dreams.

This year I decided to make a change with the help of my partner. Rather than make a New Year’s resolution that’ll get abandoned by the 2nd of January, he sets a word for the year ahead. Some of his previous words have been ‘confidence’, ‘elevate’ and ‘strengthen’. Setting a word gives him more freedom to interpret and apply its meaning to any situation. Each month he reflects on his progress and, if necessary, adjusts things in order to meet his goals. This year, as I come to the end of my Master’s degree and plan to embark on internships and volunteer opportunities that will improve my chances of landing a job in the publishing industry, I decided to do the same. My word is ‘fearlessness’. Every time I feel anxious, particularly about the future, I remind myself of my word and push through the fear. It’s still a struggle, but one I am facing head on.

Another strategy I have for dealing with anxiety is procrastination. It can give you immediate relief, almost like the hit of caffeine from your morning coffee. But just like caffeine the effects wear off, and after you’ve finished watching an episode of your favourite TV show or come up for air after a social media dive, you find yourself riddled with anxiety again, looking for another distraction. The more efficient thing to do, I’ve discovered, is to make an ordered list of all the things you need or want to get done and gradually work through ticking them off. Then and only then can you reward yourself with a trip down a YouTube rabbit hole.

So rather than burying anxious thoughts or finding distractions, I’m trying to harness optimal anxiety to push me forward and help me perform at my best. Anxiety is not always a negative emotion that should be avoided at all costs; it is in fact a normal human response designed to keep us safe. It can also be a stimulant for change and can lead to greater success and fulfilment if we establish a healthy relationship with it. Of course, it’s not an easy balance to get right, and I suspect it’ll take a lifetime to perfect. But it’s a journey I plan to take, one slightly anxious step at a time.

*If you are struggling with anxious thoughts, please seek help by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14 or speak to a medical professional.*

Alistair Trapnell is a singer/songwriter, actor and writer living on Wurundjeri land. He is currently completing the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne.

Cover photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

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