Finding "The Performance Zone": Achieve balance to improve your ability to focus
Anxiety is a normal human feeling and process in our bodies, and it can actually be helpful
People need to maintain a healthy level of anxiety in situations where it is important to stay alert and in control. Police Officers, Fire Fighters, Airline Pilots, EMTs, Hospital Workers, and many others have to be alert and vigilant to their surroundings in order to perform their jobs. All of us have moments where we need the focus and attention of an ER nurse. We need to be alert and even somewhat anxious when driving on a busy freeway, trying to perform well on a test, or when how we speak and choosing the right words are really important, like in an important meeting or when giving a speech. This is often referred to as "optimal anxiety" you can think of this as the good side of anxiety, where it helps us to focus in on what is most important and get the job done.
Usually, after the situation has passed, we feel a sense of relief and our bodies naturally return to "normal."
Too much Anxiety is not helpful
When we leave an anxiety-producing situation like some of the ones described above and our bodies seem to be unable to relax afterwards, or when the anxiety that comes up during one of these events is so high that instead of helping us focus, it actually makes everything harder, there may be a problem with the way your stress response system is functioning.
If this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing clinical Anxiety or an Anxiety Disorder.
How does Anxiety work in the body?
Our bodies are built to react to sudden changes with intensity and maintain a heightened state in important moments (like the EMT having pin-point focus as she rushes to help someone in need). This is part of what you might know as the "flight or fight response" in the central nervous system which is key in keeping us safe in crisis situations and helping us to focus in on what is most important when time is of the essence.
Our bodies also have a very important parasympathetic nervous system response (the body's "calm down system") which helps us to calm down and return to normal once the crisis has passed, and helps us to relax when it is time to sleep. If our bodies do not calm themselves down, we may feel like we are "continuing to spin," or feeling that we are still in "fight or flight mode," when the situation no longer requires that heightened level of focus and anxiety.
We need to be able to react accurately to situations so that we are not always feeling amped up or overly focused in more neutral or even relaxing situations.
Signs you might be experiencing Anxiety:
- Feeling pent-up
- Constantly tense
- Thoughts are "spinning" or "racing"
- Unable to relax
- You always feel more tense or "amped up" than other people in the same situation
- Trouble relaxing or falling asleep
- Worries that seem out of proportion to reality
If these symptoms fit with your experience, your anxiety may be getting in the way of living a full, enjoyable life.
What should I do about too much Anxiety?
Learning to identify the situations where your body is continuing to feel anxious is often incredibly helpful. Do you feel anxious all the time? Only around certain people or in certain places? Does it seem to be related to a tough situation at work or in your relationship?
Understanding the root of your stress is often the key to releasing yourself from it. It can be helpful to talk with a trusted friend or a therapist who can help you sort out what may be contributing to your anxiety. Sometimes it is really hard to see our own lives clearly, and someone outside of our life, with no "agenda" other than our own well-being can be a huge help.
Your resting stress level, and your response to stress can also be improved with some important self-care activities:
- Deep breathing techniques
- Eating nutritious food
- Getting adequate sleep
Working with a therapist who is trained in Anxiety management can be a wonderful help. A therapist can help you to understand what "triggers" your anxiety, determine more helpful problem-solving skills, and teach you techniques to relax your body. When recurring stressful situations or painful memories are at the root of your Anxiety, EMDR can be a helpful technique to help get those repetitive thoughts "unstuck." When your Anxiety is made worse by what feels like an overactive stress response system, Neurofeedback may help. It is a technique where you actually train your brain to maintain calm states more easily.
Dr. Courtney Klein is a psychologist at The Catalyst Center where she often works with people who want to reduce their overall stress level, learn to manage anxiety more effectively, and live meaningful, fulfilling lives.