When you're crouching in the bushes about to raid a group of drug dealers, you need a certain amount of stress and anxiety to sharpen your senses, keep you focused and possibly save your life. The last thing you want is to feel too relaxed or content.
This was one of the lessons relayed to us during a recent two-day stint at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. I was there with Jeff Brown and Liz Neporent doing research for our book, The Winner's Brain. We were interested in how special agents are trained to perform under pressure.
It never occurred to me that you could feel anything but abject terror at the prospect of taking on a bunch of well-armed criminals. So, while I was prepared to hear how to overcome a panic attack in the field, the stories depicting ways to increase anxiety were a surprise.
Plus, we all hear that stress and anxiety are bad for us. Aren't these the sort of things we should all be trying to eliminate from our lives?
Indeed, studies suggest that more people may be dealing with anxiety and stress-related health problems than ever before. Consider the researchers who recently looked at scores from psychological tests administered from 1938 to 2007. They found that up to five times as many U.S. high-school and university students were dealing with anxiety and depression in the new millennium as those tested decades earlier.
Stress and anxiety become serious problems when triggered too frequently, for too long or by situations that do not pose a particular threat or challenge.
Such disorders can be debilitating. And it has taken a while to raise public awareness of the profound impact that excessive stress can have on one's physical and mental health and of the intense apprehension, worry, physical tension and other symptoms that are associated with pathological anxiety.
This explains why popular rhetoric about stress and anxiety focuses almost exclusively on getting rid of these negative states. But our team of Federal Bureau of Investigation instructors provided poignant reminders that stress can also be an important, valuable asset. Just about any job can start to feel routine after a while. A boost in tension can offset complacency and, in some situations, help to ensure survival.
How do stress and anxiety enhance performance? Stress is a brain-controlled physiological response involving a cascade of signals between the hypothalamus (which lies just above the brain stem), the nearby pituitary gland and the adrenal glands (sitting atop the kidneys). The result is a surge of hormones and neurotransmitters, including cortisol and norepinephrine, that can dramatically alter brain function and prepare the body for action.
Meanwhile, the fear, apprehension and uncertainty that accompany anxiety is associated with enhanced vigilance. This allows you to better notice and respond to what is going on around you - a feat achieved in part through neural connections that allow stress-activated regions, such as the amygdala, to enhance activity in other regions, those involved in sensory perception, such as the occipital and temporal lobes.
In this way, a certain amount of stress and anxiety can help to provide the motivational drive, attentional focus and state of readiness to respond to challenging situations. Such benefits may explain why so many people report doing their best work under deadline or other form of pressure.
Feeling anxious? Identifying the source of your apprehension is the first step in determining whether it is a challenge worth taking on, or something less deserving of your focused efforts. This can help you capitalize on stress and anxiety when it is warranted, and begin alleviating tension when it's not.
Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, is an associate professor in neuroscience at the University of Guelph.