Stress, Anxiety, Butterflies in the Tummy: Too much of a good thing?


WARREN HEGGARTY has lived with anxiety disorders for decades. He has always suspected that relaxation was not quite the answer…

A lot of people talk as though anxiety and stress are diseases which need to be eliminated, but they don’t seem to know about the Yerkes-Dodson law.

Let me explain: The other day I was talking to a colleague (who I shall call Max) about those silly relaxation exercises that psychiatrists and psychologists and just about everyone else tell you to do when you are stricken with stress and anxiety.
You know the ones, when they tell you to imagine you are on a boat gently bobbing in a tropical lagoon, relax, relax, relax…

Max is in fact a yachtie. His idea of being on a boat involves vigorous physical exercise, the wind howling, the spray splashing, the keel cutting through the big blue waves…it is an invigorating experience which leaves you feeling relaxed and positive long afterwards.
I don’t know if Max has ever heard of the Yerkes-Dodson law, but he appreciates the gist of it.

Meditation, too, is sometimes presented as some kind of escapist technique for relaxation.
Of course, if you learn all about the subject you will find that –at least in the Buddhist tradition- meditation is a technique that must be pursued – like yachting – with strenuous effort and diligence as one treads the long path to enlightenment. It seems that Gautama Buddha appreciated Yerkes-Dodson’s law 24 centuries before it was formulated.

Relaxation has its place, but so does stress; and so does anxiety. Yerkes and Dodson demonstrated this in 1908.

Their law states that in order to function at your best you need to attain a certain level of arousal, meaning stress, including anxiety or “excitement,” if you will. John Eales calls it “embracing the butterflies” in his column for “The Deal” magazine where he recalled the nervousness he experienced before a big international rugby game.

So if stress and anxiety are so essential, why do people become crippled by them? Again the Yerkes-Dodson law explains:

Up to a point, increasing arousal may help you focus wholeheartedly on the task in hand. Leaving more trivial concerns aside and concentrating on the important job or game in hand, you get caught up in the flow and you perform at your best. But when stress reaches a certain level, the process reverses.

When the state of arousal is TOO high, you become confused, you lose focus on the task in hand, you go to pieces, you panic, you sweat, you feel like you’re suffocating, you can’t go on you have to escape… people with anxiety disorders know the feeling.

So it seems to me that if, like me, you are prone to severe anxiety or panic, turning the anxiety off is not the answer. The answer is knowing that you have passed the optimum level of arousal and you need to take it back down.

There are a number of techniques for doing this, such as breath control which can help with the most serious symptom of over-arousal – hyperventilation – which causes panic. You can discuss techniques with your support workers or medical practitioners. But bear in mind, that anxiety is not always bad, and you need to learn to live with a certain level to perform at your best.


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