An interesting column in Newsweek, High on Anxiety by Casey Schwartz, details research on emotion regulation that says some people seek a feeling of anxiety because that’s what they’re used to. It isn’t that it feels good, exactly, but rather that it feels familiar; and that boosts performance.
Schwartz quotes psychiatrist Harris Stratyner of Mount Sinai School of Medicine: “Some people get addicted to feeling anxious because that’s the state that they’ve always known. If they feel a sense of calm, they get bored; they feel empty inside. They want to feel anxious.”
Is that what makes some people say, “I perform best under pressure”? My brother, whose nickname is “last-minute Larry,” has always said that. And I’ve always thought that it was just an excuse for procrastination. Perhaps it’s actually an addition to certain brain chemicals.
The other question that comes to mind has to do with pressure to perform as a trainer or public speaker. Recently a colleague told me I was a “little too comfortable” with what I do, and perhaps if I upped my level of nervous tension I would generate more energy in the classroom. But I hate that feeling of being nervous before an event and I’ll do anything to avoid it. What does that mean? Am I boring because I’m not anxious enough? Have I conditioned myself to be addicted to the wrong brain chemicals?
Perhaps the lesson is not so much what state of emotion you need to cultivate before an important job or event, but rather, that we need to be cognizant of how we’re conditioning our neurotransmitters in general. Are we allowing ourselves to get habituated to something uncomfortable, and becoming addicted to it in the process? That seems like something you could consciously reverse if you were aware of it. I’d rather be addicted to feeling at ease.