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People can use anxiety to motivate themselves, study finds

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A high-stress environment may be a boon rather than a bane for some. According to new research published in the Journal of Individual Differences, some anxious individuals can use that experience to motivate themselves.

Past research has found that anxiety can harm concentration and memory. But the new study suggests that the way people experience and respond to anxiety influences their academic and job performance.

“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,” said the study’s corresponding author, Juliane Strack of Strandklinik St. Peter-Ording. “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 me to look into the concept of instrumental emotion regulation (when we maintain or strive for emotions that help us to attain goals; these emotions can be negative, such as anxiety in dangerous situations) as well as eustress (positive stress).”

The three-part study investigated the tendency to use anxiety for self-motivation by surveying 194 German adults, 159 undergraduate students in Poland, and 270 journalists in Germany. People who score higher on measures of anxiety motivation tend to agree with statements such as “feeling anxious about a deadline helps me to get the work done on time” and “feeling anxious about my goals keeps me focused on them.”

The researchers found anxious students with higher anxiety motivation tended to have better grades than anxious students with lower anxiety motivation. Likewise, anxious journalists with higher anxiety motivation tended to report higher job satisfaction than anxious journalists with lower anxiety motivation. This was particularly true among individuals who were clear about their feelings.

In other words, the typical association between anxiety and negative outcomes appeared to be disrupted among those with higher levels of anxiety motivation. “Using anxiety as a source of motivation seems to offset the otherwise detrimental effects of anxiety,” Strack and her colleagues wrote in their study.

“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. In other words, some people use anxiety to motivate themselves, which we label as ‘anxiety motivation’.”

The study had some limitations. “As the studies rely on self-report, future research may benefit from exploring the concept of anxiety motivation in the context of performance ratings or other types of objective indicators for motivation and/or performance,” Strack explained.

The study also used a cross-sectional methodology, preventing the researchers from drawing inferences about cause-and-effect.

“In other studies we have further looked into the concept of anxiety motivation, and found that people differ in how they use anxiety to motivate themselves: some use the energy that anxiety can provide, while others use the information value that anxiety can provide (emotions serve as a feedback system that helps us monitor goal progress; for example anxiety can signal that our goals are threatened),” Strack added.

“Furthermore, anxiety motivation can buffer some of the negative consequences of stressful situations: in experimental settings as well as longitudinal studies we observed that anxiety motivation can protect against emotional exhaustion, as well as helping people to appraise stressors as positive challenges, rather than threatening problems.”

The study, “Must We Suffer to Succeed? When Anxiety Boosts Motivation and Performance“, was also co-authored by Paulo Lopes, Francisco Esteves, and Pablo Fernandez-Berrocal. It was published online May 24, 2017.

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