Here's Why Work Stress Is Actually a Good Thing

The key: You've got to think like an athlete.

Anxiety at work, like anywhere else in life, is not generally considered to be a good thing. Feeling overwhelmed by all of the things that you have to do—or stressing out about your ability to complete a given task—can make you paralyzed with fear, cause you to lash out at clients or co-workers, and even make you develop cancer and other diseases further down the road.

All of that is still true, and 72 percent of Americans who experience anxiety on a daily basis say it interferes with their work and personal lives. But a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology has found that a moderate level of anxiety can actually help boost your work performance.

"If you have too much anxiety, and you're completely consumed by it, then it's going to derail your performance," said Julie McCarthy, an expert on organizational behavior and co-author of the University of Toronto study. "On the other hand, moderate levels of anxiety can facilitate and drive performance."

The key—and this is crucial—is to harness the anxiety instead of letting it take over. Bonnie Hayden Cheng, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and lead author of the study, compared it to athletes, who are trained to use their anxiety to regulate their behavior and focus on the task at hand.

It's called self-regulatory processing, and it consists of setting standards of desirable behavior, having the motivation to meet those standards, monitoring any thoughts that may inhibit reaching those standards, and developing the willpower to control urges that get in the way of achieving your goals.

Moderate anxiety, Cheng argues, helps with the third step in the self-regulatory process.

"After all, if we have no anxiety and we just don't care about performance, then we are not going to be motivated to do the job," Cheng said.

Of course, as anyone who suffers from anxiety knows all too well, managing it takes a fair amount of inner strength, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence, but it can be done.

"Managing anxiety can be done by recognizing and addressing triggers of workplace anxiety, but also being aware of how to leverage it in order to drive performance," Cheng said.

The study, which drew its conclusions from past theories of anxiety, resource depletion, cognitive-motivational processing, and performance, not only has implications for individual self-improvement, but also for potential training that companies might want to adopt to help employees use their anxiety to get the best possible results at their jobs.

For more science-based tips on how to boost your performance, check out Why Working On Higher Office Floors Affects Your Decision-making. And if you suffer from intense stress at work, check out 30 Ways to De-Stress in Just 30 Seconds (or Less!).

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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