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3 unexpected benefits of stress and anxiety

Long-term stress and anxiety are bad for your health, but these feelings do serve a purpose.

3 unexpected benefits of stress and anxiety
[Photo: Anna Shvets/Pexels]

For the past year, headlines about the Great Resignation have touted the role of stress, anxiety, and burnout as reasons for why such a large number of people have left their jobs in the wake of the pandemic. And long-term stress is bad for your health, morale, and engagement with others. But, that doesn’t mean that stress and anxiety are always bad.

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To that end, here are a few examples of when stress and anxiety can be good (even if it doesn’t feel good in the moment):

Vigilance in uncertain times

One common cause of anxiety is uncertainty. As I often point out, the brain is a prediction engine that wants to help you recognize the situation you’re in so you can bring your knowledge to bear on it. In many cases, though, you cannot predict what is going to happen next. It might reflect that the situation is one you have not encountered before. It might be that you are in a familiar context, but you have little or no control over the outcome.

One result of anxiety is that you pay more attention to the environment. Presumably, in our evolutionary history, this enabled early humans to detect the arrival of potential threats. These days, though, it raises awareness of additional factors that might help to predict what is going to happen.

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For example, you might pay more attention to a client when you are not sure if they will accept a proposal you offered. As a result of that focus, you may notice things they’re doing that enable you to be sensitive to their needs as they deliberate about whether to work with you.

An energizing force to deal with problems

You have probably noticed that when you’re anxious about something, you can’t sit still. That reflects that short-term stress and anxiety are energizing emotions. They are your body’s way of preparing you for action.

Although most work problems don’t require physical strength, they do require mental energy in order to put in the hours required to address the issue. The motivational lift that a little anxiety can provide can be harnessed as you get to work. Your energy may also engage your teammates to help dig in.

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Of course, you want to hit your energy sweet spot. Too little energy when you’re working on a project, and you won’t get much done. Too much eneergy, and you’re likely to have trouble concentrating. So, if you find that stress has you over-energized, do a little exercise, go out for a walk, or try some meditation to help you calm down a bit before doing any serious thinking.

The (occasional) benefits of rumination

Another common result of anxiety is rumination, which is a tendency to engage in a cycle of thoughts about the issue that is the source of the stress. Over the long term, rumination can magnify your stress, and so you definitely want to have strategies to help you stop ruminating when it is not productive.

However, if you’re dealing with a complex puzzle at work, then your tendency to chew over the details of the project can work to your advantage. Let yourself continue thinking about the issue. Rather than doing it aimlessly, though, start writing out what comes to mind. Use that to guide and focus your thoughts so that you can analyze the situation carefully. You’ll still feel some stress and anxiety while you’re thinking, but at least you’re using your energy to make progress.

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That said, if you don’t find a solution to the issue, you are likely to keep ruminating. At some point, you’ll find yourself treading the same ground repeatedly. At that point, rumination is no longer benefitting you; and it’s time to engage your strategies for refocusing your thoughts so you don’t slip from doing productive work to just maintaining your stress level. For example, when solitary time is focusing you on the object of your stress, it can be helpful to go meet with colleagues to talk about other projects.

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