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Many of us know that we work better under pressure – when no deadline is set we can coast along or become distracted by other tasks, but as soon as that deadline is looming we turn the anxiety over missing it to our advantage, using it as a powerful motivational tool to get the task completed on time. This is known as ‘anxiety motivation’ and can increase performance, helping us reach our goals or feel satisfied in our jobs.

Previous research has suggested that anxiety can have negative effects on concentration and memory, but a new study published this week in the Journal of Individual Differences suggests that our response to anxiety can influence academic success and in later life, job performance.

Anxiety as a Powerful Motivator

The study, titled ‘Must we suffer to succeed? When anxiety boosts motivation and performance’ was authored by Juliane Strack, Paulo Lopes, Francisco Esteves and Pablo Fernandez-Berrocal.

Their research surveyed 194 adults in Germany, 270 German journalists and 159 undergraduate students in Poland. The team asked participants questions about whether anxiety relating to a deadline helped them complete their work on time, or increased their focus.

It was found that those with a high level of anxiety motivation generally had higher grades or better job motivation than participants who reported lower levels of anxiety motivation. The study mentions that: “Using anxiety as a source of motivation seems to offset the otherwise detrimental effects of anxiety.”

Turning a negative emotion into a positive result

Talking to PsyPost, Juliane Strack said that:

“I hope that people can understand the positive sides of negative emotions, in particular anxiety, which many people try to suppress or avoid. 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’.”

“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).”

“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.”

Future Research Into Anxiety Motivation

As Strack explained, the team are aware that their research does have some limitations and needs to be expanded upon: “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.”

While it will be interesting to see the results of any future research, the initial results are certainly very interesting. As many of us face increased workloads and deadlines at both school and work, this study shows us the power of turning anxiety to our advantage.

Top image: Anxiety work environment. (Anxiety.org)

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Emma Stenhouse, MSc

Emma qualified with a BSc (Hons) in Equine Science in 2003 and has had a passion for horses since a young age. She continued her academic career with an MSc in Applied Marine Science, gained in 2004. Emma’s main scientific focus was the navigational techniques of sea turtles and whether they use the acoustics of the surf-zone as a cue for nesting. She then worked for a sea turtle conservation project on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica before travelling to New Zealand where she worked as a Mari...Read More

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