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Anxiety: Is It Helping or Hurting You?

Anxiety and stress are often used to mean the same thing, and we sometimes use the word “stressed” when a friend asks us how we are doing. What we may not share with the friend is that we’re actually feeling anxious and way too stressed. We use the word stress, because the word anxiety seems too clinical, as if we have a serious problem. We might say to ourselves, “Aren’t we all stressed or a little anxious much of the time anyway?”

Understand The Performance Curve

We are all stressed often enough, yet anxiety arises with more frequent and intense stress that then leads to stress crossing over to anxiety. The Yerkes Dodson performance curve is an upside-down U (or bell-shaped curve) that graphs how our performance looks in relation to the level of stress.

When tasks are routine or simple, we do not experience much stress. We perform those tasks well most of the time, and we don’t need the additional focus and attention that stress brings. Some people however, are too easy-going with tasks that are moderately demanding, and these individuals may struggle to perform adequately at work, because they are not giving enough time and attention to their work. These people can often bring stress and anxiety to the people around them more so than to themselves.

Know That Life’s Demands Bring Stress and Sometimes Distress (Anxiety)

Demands on our time, energy and attention include such things as job duties, grocery shopping, meal prep, cleaning, yard work, social commitments, etc. Most people perform these tasks fairly well (optimal performance) and give them the time and attention they deserve. Sometimes we fail to also acknowledge the attention and energy required to tend to other situations such as difficult conversations with co-workers or family members, care-giving responsibilities for children or aging parents, time for nurturing important relationships, and dealing with the uncertainty of a long-term pandemic or economic situation, among other things.

Time and energy are finite resources, and there is only so much available for each of us, depending on our age, our genetics, our current physical and mental health, and our prior experience. The demands in our lives often lead us to become stronger and more capable of coping, much like exercise and working out build strength in an athlete. However, athletes can also push too hard, work out too much or too long, and, as a result, they may see a drop in performance or even experience injury. Similarly, we may be pushed too hard at times by life’s demands and see a drop in performance due to anxiety. Know that Dr. Craig uses cognitive-behavioral therapy which teaches you very effective tools for helping you prevent or recover from chronic anxiety.

Learn The Signs of Burnout and Overstimulation

We perform best when we tackle a moderate demand or challenge that brings some level of stress; and maybe even a little brief anxiety from time to time. When we have this balance between level of demand and level of stress, we are at peak performance. When demand is excessive, especially when it occurs long-term over the course of weeks, months or years, we use up our reservoir of energy and resources. We feel anxious, tired and depleted. As our performance falls off and our coping skills are too taxed by the demands, we experience anxiety and eventually feel exhausted without motivation; a state called burnout. Like a car out of gas, we are then running on empty with no fuel to draw on so to speak.

The human equivalent of running out of gas is more of a process. Some of the signs that our engine is running too hot and that we’re low on fuel include the following physical, mental, emotional and behavioral symptoms.





Muscle Tension







Avoiding people 


Difficulty focusing

Lack of enjoyment

Late to work


Memory lapses




Low motivation


Stress eating


Negative bias

Numbed out

Substance abuse

Research studies do show that these changes in brain function are real. For instance, Girotti and colleagues found that repeated exposure to stressful conditions negatively affects short-term memory, attention, impulse control, and mental flexibility*. In other words, chronic distress can do damage. On a more positive note, that means better self-care means better brain function. So, make the effort to keep stress levels more moderate, and we’ll not only feel better but perform better too.

Clarify Expectations with Others and Self

For many people, excessive demands and anxiety come from the expectations of others, such as a boss or family members. When the demands are too high, we may need to communicate with these important others as part of keeping the anxiety in check. Talking with the boss about prioritizing job duties with reasonable time frames is one example. During a period of extra-high demand, we may also temporarily cut back on time spent in other areas too, such as meal prep, time with family, and exercise; as long as self-care and priority relationships are not neglected on a regular basis. It’s also possible that our own perception of others’ expectations is off or distorted. Clarifying expectations and time frames for completion of tasks can be useful in maintaining our sense of balance and avoiding anxiety. Remember that we cannot read minds, so don’t assume.

Sometimes, such conversation reveals that the other person’s expectations are excessively high. We may need to consider whether a job (or a relationship) is a good fit if the boss or friend is unwilling to adjust their expectations to a more reasonable level or if our energy and skills cannot keep up with the demands of the job. Spend some time to write out what your goals and priorities are for the situation and for your life. The writing may give you clarity and direction about how to proceed. Remember that anxiety sometimes serves as a sign that we need to make an important life change

Anxiety and overstimulation can also occur when we have excessively high expectations for our performance. The mental and emotional demand that comes with always falling short of those expectations takes a toll. Are we more often a critical coach or a compassionate friend to ourselves? Past experiences would suggest that a compassionate friend is more likely to help us maintain hope and motivation. Be the compassionate and supportive friend with self-talk.

Find Your Rhythm

Being in a hurry to get everything done can also contribute to anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed and overstimulated. We may try to knock out all the work, so we can then relax. Sometimes, we just move on to the next task, and the time for relaxation keeps getting pushed off, leading to bouts of anxiety. When we instead learn to pace ourselves appropriately, we will enjoy the accomplishment of a job well done without the cost of feeling depleted. Find the rhythm that works for you.

A sense of urgency can also arise when we just want to bring a quick end to the anxiety and stress, so we rush to complete the task even if it’s not our best work or leaves us low on motivation for the next task. Learn to tolerate some level of anxiety and discomfort, and the stress level will probably be less intense while we complete the task, even if it takes a little longer. Also, learn to tolerate some uncertainty about the outcome of a task or situation. Realize that making adjustments based on feedback from others is an integral part of better performance in work or relationships.

Fill Your Life With Purpose

Sometimes we are not engaging our mind with activities that have enough purpose and meaning for us, or at least not consistently enough. Our minds can then go to a place of anxious worry about others, about whether we are making progress in life, and about whether we are good enough. It’s useful to clarify what we value most in life. Once we identify the things that give us a sense of purpose, we can then pursue the activities and goals that reflect those values.

Seek Balance and the Value-Driven Life

Though most of us value balance in life, life doesn’t allow for constant balance. We all have trials from time to time, and we may also spend extra time and effort on projects that are important to us, at least temporarily. Achieving balance in life requires ongoing attention and adjustment. In the end, it is spending our time and effort with people and activities that reflect our most treasured values that leads to more meaning, better relationships, and more of the kind of balance we want from our lives.

While chronic stress, anxiety, and worry can detract from your quality of life, relief is available. Research suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy and self-compassion training are highly effective in treating such anxiety. Dr. Craig specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders and would be happy to help you manage your anxiety and achieve better balance and quality of life.

(Girotti, M., Adler, S.M., Bulin, S.E., Fucich, E.A., Paredes, D., & Morilak, D.A. (2018). Prefrontal cortex executive processes affected by stress in health and disease. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 85:161-179)


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