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Is Anxiety a Motivator?

is anxiety a motivator?Your palms are clammy. Beads of perspiration cascade down your forehead as your heart thrums out a staccato rhythm. Your thoughts are tangled like a ball of yarn; a coherent sentence eludes you as you attempt to communicate what you are feeling.

All of these symptoms occur, not as you are facing a roaring lion or a roaring crowd as you stand on stage, but rather, as you are sitting in the safety of your living room, anticipating taking a test, going on a first date or driving to the supermarket to complete your grocery list. Anxiety has grasped you by the hand and threatens to carry you away in its clutches.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V (DSM-V) describes Generalized Anxiety Disorder as:

Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least six months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).

B. The person finds it difficult to control the worry.

C. The anxiety and worry are associated with three (or more) of the following six symptoms (with at least some symptoms present for more days than not for the past six months).

  1. Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  2. Being easily fatigued
  3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  4. Irritability
  5. Muscle tension
  6. Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)

Although this description alludes to sometimes being incapacitated, there are those who experience a mixture of symptoms who are able to function in their daily lives. It is when the signs of anxiety make one’s life unmanageable that treatment needs to be addressed.

Anxiety as a Tool or a Weapon?

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A young man in treatment who has admitted that anxiety has been a lifelong companion claims that it assists him in completing tasks. His therapist inquired how that played out in his daily interactions. His response was that it motivated him: “I don’t want to screw up, so I do what I need to do.” His method also includes procrastination, which has him leaving activities until the last minute.

The paradoxical effect had him doing well academically, but the tradeoff was that it was distressing. They then explored the dynamics behind it. His entrenched belief system told him that a negative outcome was almost inevitable, so he didn’t want to get his hopes up for a positive outcome. Procrastinating delayed that eventuality in his mind.

The therapist then asked him to imagine being in a room in which the walls were scrawled upon with critical messages such as “You’re a loser. You are going to fail, so why bother? You never do anything right. Give up.” The next step was to leave the room and walk into one in which affirming messages surrounded him. His answer was that he wouldn’t believe the statements in the second room.

The next step was to have him visualize a bucket filled with a substance that could scrub away the words on the initial wall and all it would take would be for him to reach in and pick up the brush. He reluctantly agreed that this might work. She reminded him that his imagination was strong enough to visualize a negative outcome, so why not trade it in for a more fulfilling one?

Anxiety can indeed be used to prompt performance. A teenager who had been a competitive swimmer for much of her youth found herself experiencing butterflies in her stomach when contemplating getting up on the starting block and facing other swimmers who were vying for the same blue ribbon she was. She reasoned that since butterfly was her signature stroke, she could ‘employ’ the ones flitting about within her to enhance her performance. More often than not, she found that to be effective and many times carried her to victory in the pool.

A seasoned public speaker was facing the opportunity to participate in a storytelling event in Manhattan and felt uncharacteristically nervous about the prospect. She enlisted the support of friends who were also stage performers (speakers, musicians, actors and singers) to talk her through it. She rehearsed her presentation numerous times. She consulted with the organizer of the event. It was the dialog with herself that ultimately did the trick. Asking herself what the difference was between this event and hundreds of others she had done over more than 30 years, the only thing she could come up with was, “It’s New York City.” That caused her to laugh and the anxiety no longer had power over her.

Since anxiety is both a reflection of fear of the unknown and a reminder of what could go wrong, because it may have in the past, it is helpful to engage in a practice of acting ‘as if’ the end result is what you would like it to be.

  • Ask yourself: What is my fondest hope and deepest fear?
  • Write them down and say them aloud.
  • Inquire about what might happen if either or both occurred.
  • Enter the ‘imaginarium’ in your mind as a place in which infinite possibility exists. Since that is so, conjure up the best possible result.
  • Draw images of the product of your intention.
  • Create a story about the experience as if it had already occurred.
  • Take time to breathe if the anxiety mounts.
  • Remind yourself that you have survived challenges in the past.
  • Engage the support of accountability partners and cheerleaders who can help you through doubts.
  • Be aware that anxiety may be attempting to communicate a message or act as a reminder to change your habits and patterns. Listen to it and then show it the door, thanking it for doing its job.
  • Reframe negative outcomes as you ask yourself what you have learned from the experience that could prevent you from traversing the same path and making the ill-advised choices again.
  • Transform the energy of anxiety into that of anticipation.
  • Dance and sing away the feelings that may be weighing you down as you extricate yourself out from under the pressure it exudes.
Is Anxiety a Motivator?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2020). Is Anxiety a Motivator?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 2 Apr 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.