Not so fast, say scientists. Research shows that moderate amounts of stress actually boost performance. "Somewhere between checked out and freaked out lies an anxiety sweet spot," reported the Wall Street Journal recently. At this optimum level of stress "a person is motivated to succeed yet not so anxious that performance takes a dive. This moderate amount of anxiety keeps people on their toes, enables them to juggle multiple tasks and puts them on high alert for potential problems," according to the article.
So how can entrepreneurs hit this stress sweet spot? Finding a balance is difficult, as the 40 million American adults who suffer from anxiety disorders can attest. This flood of stressed-out patients inundating America's mental health professionals illustrates the central truth that too much anxiety is a much more frequent issue than too little. Though "some overly optimistic people and those with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder may lack enough anxiety to take action," writes the Journal.
If you're among the majority of folks who overshoot the anxiety sweet spot because of too much stress, there are interventions that can help. For serious stress cases, cognitive behavior therapy may be the answer. The Journal notes:
Turning anxiety into action is also a major component of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is widely seen as the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders. Identifying and challenging self-defeating thoughts, and gradually facing the source of fears, can provide more lasting relief than antianxiety medications, psychologists say.
"If you have to take Xanax to get on the elevator, you never learn that the elevator isn't something to be afraid of," says Dr. [Stephen] Josephson. "You have to embrace the anxiety to overcome it."
But approaching the anxiety sweet spot by confronting your fears need not happen in a clinical setting and isn't limited to those with pathological levels of stress. It's exactly the approach advocated by Justin Menkes, the author of Better Under Pressure. He says mastering anxiety is within the grasp of nearly everyone, as long as you gradually work your way up to tolerating larger and larger stresses much as you would gradually build up your strength and endurance at the gym--pushing yourself but not too much. He says:
You have to build inside your brain, your consciousness and your stomach a knowing that you can handle it. You have to put yourself in situations that elevate your sense of stretch, whether it's a presentation, public speaking or a task that causes you fear. Take initiative on something, but not something that is over your head because what is essential is that your experiences along the way are positive.
If you put yourself in situations that are just so extreme, then the probabilities are you aren't ready and it can go badly. Then your memory attaches negative experiences to pressure and that doesn't help. We want you to associate elevated pressure with a confidence that you can handle it, and you do that by elevating the situations of stress where there's a risk of failure but you're well enough prepared for it that odds are it's going to go well. You put yourself in several of those and then you have that internal memory of 'I can handle pressure.' Then you keep elevating it.
Or if you're an entrepreneur looking to build up your ability to handle anxiety outside of your high stakes professional world, enlist your friends.
"One simple exercise involves memorizing something, be it a poem or the 50 states, and then reciting it before friends at a dinner party, while encouraging them to taunt you if you make mistakes," Menkes suggests. "At first, you are more likely to have missteps in this context. Eventually, you will find that you can do the exercise faster, with more accuracy, in front of an audience than when you do it by yourself."
JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel