Long Story Short
Trying to cut down on your anxiety? New research says you may need to think twice about that.
If you’re a young professional, there’s probably a good chance you’re trying to work on your anxiety. A recent study suggested that more Americans than ever before are stressed, depressed and increasingly anxiety-ridden. A Telegraph story from 2015 talked about the epidemic of anxiety sweeping through the UK’s generation Y.
But what if a high stress environment is an advantage for some people? While research in the past has found that anxiety damages your brain, a new study suggests that it’s how people experience and respond to anxiety that matters most. The results of the study have been published in Journal of Individual Differences.
“I have the impression that much of the research in the psychology literature focuses on hedonic emotion regulation, in other words, when people strive to be happy,” the study’s corresponding author, Juliane Strack, told Psypost. “However, I observed that there are situations where people seem to thrive on stress — situations that tend to evoke negative emotions such as anxiety or anger.”
That led Strack to look into the concept of instrumental emotion regulation — when we try to harness (sometimes) negative emotions to help us achieve goals — as well as eustress, or positive stress.
The resulting three part study involved 194 German adults, 270 German journalists and 159 Polish undergraduate students, Strack and her colleagues investigating their use of anxiety for self-motivation. People who scored higher on measures of anxiety motivation tended to agree with statements saying that anxiety helped them hit deadlines and stay focused on particular goals.
The research all came down to what the researchers label “anxiety-motivation.” Anxious students with higher anxiety motivation tended to achieve better grades than anxious students with low anxiety motivation. The same pattern presented itself with journalists, with high anxiety motivation subjects reporting better job satisfaction.
Basically, anxiety isn’t necessarily a negative emotion. Instead, certain individuals can harness it as a motivation to achieve goals. “I hope that people can understand the positive sides of negative emotions, in particular anxiety, which many people try to suppress or avoid,” Strack told PsyPost. “We see in these studies that anxiety can actually provide us with a lot of energy and focus.”
The limitations of the study? It relied on self-reporting rather than objective measures. Also, the study used a cross-sectional methodology, which prevents researchers from examining cause-and-effect.
Still, this is a major reinterpretation of how we think about anxiety.