How to turn anxiety to your benefit

Drawing conclusions: Kierkegaard thought that anxiety is the price we pay for free choice.

Everyone suffers from anxiety from time to time, and it can mean our performance suffers. But there are techniques which can make anxiety work for you. Have we lost sight of its benefits?

Feeling anxious is a perfectly normal reaction to stressful situations that we all come across. But whether before exams, public speaking or playing in a high-stakes game of sport, it is an emotion which can feel difficult to deal with and overcome.

And many stories in the media say it is on the increase, particularly among the young. A recent survey of UK primary school leaders, for example, found that eight out of ten said that pupils were suffering from increased anxiety during their SAT exams.

But is anxiety necessarily always a bad thing? Academic Simon Wolfe Taylor recently spoke out about the positives of anxiety, and how we have lost sight of them in our rush to treat it as an illness.

He cites the 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. “Kierkegaard says anxiety sucks,” writes Wolfe Taylor. “But you cannot be a creative, imaginative human being without anxiety.” Kierkegaard says anxiety is the price we pay for being free to make choices.

But there is also a growing body of research showing that it is possible to harness feelings of anxiety and turn them to our advantage.

How? Simply by telling ourselves that rather than being anxious, we are excited.

A 2014 Harvard Business School study got volunteers to sing Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey to a group of strangers. Some were told to say “I’m anxious” before performing, while others were told to say “I’m excited” or nothing at all.

A computer analysis of volume and pitch showed that the “excited” group sang better than the others.

In another study, a group of people sat a maths test. Some were told that being anxious could help improve their score. Sure enough, these people outperformed the others.

Scientists call this technique “arousal reappraisal”. When you are anxious or excited, your body is in an aroused state. It is much harder to bring yourself down from a state of anxiety to one of calm than it is to switch from anxious to excited.

Scientists think this switch changes how your body reacts — anxiety restricts blood flow while excitement encourages it, enhancing performance.

So, should we all embrace a bit of anxiety in our lives?

Don't sweat it

Yes, say some scientists and academics. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating, but a little normal anxiety should be welcomed. It is a normal part of being a free and creative person, and now we are discovering techniques to use it to our advantage.

Easier said than done, say others. Feeling anxious is a complex emotion and can stop us from doing our best. These tests might work in lab conditions, but it can be difficult to apply them to our everyday lives. We should try to minimise anxiety to get the most out of life.

You Decide

  1. Can feeling anxious have benefits?
  2. Is Kierkegaard right that you cannot be creative and imaginative without anxiety?


  1. Conduct an experiment in class. A group must each speak for two minutes, arguing for a point of their choice. Before each person speaks, the teacher will tell them to say either “I’m anxious” or “I’m excited”. The rest of the class will give them scores out of ten. Did one group do better than the other?
  2. Write about a time when you felt anxious. What symptoms did you feel? With hindsight, how could you have dealt with it differently?

Some People Say...

“Anxiety can just as well express itself in muteness as with a scream.”

— Søren Kierkegaard

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Everyone suffers from anxiety at some point in their lives and it is perfectly normal. Some people suffer from anxiety disorders, which make them feel anxious all the time, even when there is nothing to stress them out. These can be treated with therapy and medication. However, for ordinary anxiety, the “arousal reappraisal” technique does seem to work.
What do we not know?
The interaction between the mind and the body is not something that is well understood but their workings do seem to be closely linked. The nature of the mind is a much-discussed and active area of study in philosophy.

Word Watch

Some people develop anxiety disorders which can have more serious effects and are sometimes treated with medication. It is estimated that one in eight US children have an anxiety disorder, although some people think the condition is over-diagnosed.
Søren Kierkegaard
Regarded as the first existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard wrote about human experience and religion.
In a similar experiment, an “excited” group performed better at public speaking than an “anxious” group.
In the 2010 study at the University of Rochester, the participants were not even told to feel excited. Having a positive conception of anxiety seems to have been enough.
Aroused state
The heart rate increases and cortisol, a hormone that increases blood sugar, is released.
Blood flow
A higher flow of blood to muscles and the brain can increase physical and mental performance respectively.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.