As of this post, we’re two weeks into January. By now you’ve come back to school and the serenity you felt while at home for the holidays may have vanished the minute you stepped back on campus. While it can be nice to get back to work, if you’re overly anxious or completely overwhelmed, you may be wishing that you weren’t so stressed, weren’t so anxious, that these feelings didn’t get in the way of your work, or that they would vanish completely. Upon telling others this, you may have also been told “anxiety is a good thing”. While I don’t like when people say this, the statement is partially true but should be rephrased: the right amount of anxiety is a good thing!
This post isn’t meant to downplay the physical, mental, and performance effects of high levels of anxiety (spoiler alert: they all suck), but in research, and in many instances in life, the basic characteristics of your personality that cause you to be anxious or stressed may also be the reasons that you are good at what you do. For those of you who need evidence, the Yerkes-Dodson Law  defines the relationship between arousal and performance and the law states that anxiety increases performance but only to a certain point. Any additional increase will cause performance to decrease. Many of you might relate to performing at the far right of the curve when things are at their worst.
A great exercise that I’ve done recently is to reflect on how parts of my personality that cause me to be anxious could actually be good things if they didn’t result in the typical negative outcome. While I can’t speak for everyone, here are three positive characteristics that I think people can embrace that typically make them anxious or stressed:
Negative: You’re completely overwhelmed by the number of things involved with completing a task and thinking of every single scenario that could occur during your research.
Positive: You’re detail oriented and aware of the number of things that need to be done and that can occur.
It is counterproductive when your mind races with things you have to do or the number of different outcomes of your work but you don't make progress. But this also means you have recognized these tasks and scenarios, which may be more than others can say. It sucks when these are stuck in your head, so as Merlin Mann wrote on 43folders, use your anxiety to your advantage  and write these things down!  You’ll capture everything and be closer to organizing your day in order to accomplish these tasks and account for possible problems as your studies progress.
Negative: You feel the need to make your work perfect.
Positive: You’re concerned about the outcome of your work.
While perfectionism is a bad thing and may be the cause of your anxiety and stress, there is something to be said about being proud of your work and doing the best that you know you can. The key is that it is the best that you can. All studies have limitations and things you simply cannot account for and papers can be edited endlessly. While we want to account for every single scenario in our studies and write the best paper, in the end we need to be proud of our work and be able to say that we did all that we could. And while we can never be 100% prepared, at least making sure we have done preparation beforehand can prevent easily avoidable problems from occurring.
Negative: Looming deadlines make anxiety worse.
Positive: You have a respect for deadlines.
Looming deadlines can make stress and anxiety worse for many people and the thought of not handing something in on time is unacceptable. But this doesn't always result in a better end product. Unfortunately, many of us might set unrealistic deadlines that get us into this position. But once you begin to set realistic deadlines, your personality is in your corner because you have a respect for what a deadline means and the impact on those who depend on you to finish a task. Considering the academic community’s disregard for deadlines , this is definitely a good characteristic to possess.
This list is not exhaustive, but my hope is that it can help you reflect when you are overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. Even with counseling, help from friends, or medication, in the end you are who you are. If you are an anxious person, you'll always be a little more anxious than everyone else. And that's ok! Remember that it’s not about being anxiety free, it’s about working at your peak level and using the characteristics of who you are to your advantage. GOOD LUCK!
If you have any other reasons why the characteristics of anxiety that can sometimes be negative can be turned into a positive, let us know in the comments below!
[Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons License]