Anxiety – isn’t all Bad
A life free from anxiety may sound ideal but the reality is actually very different. Sure, it's no fun being an anxious person and as many will recognize from their own experience, anxiety is the root cause of some crippling psychological disorders. The fact that most people associate anxiety in a negative way is not at all surprising but maybe it's worth remembering that the negative aspects represent just one part of a broader picture.
Anxiety has a purpose and its paramount purpose is to help us avoid threats to our very existence. Fortunately most people muddle through their daily lives without having to be too concerned that their lives are under threat, but nearly all of their other daily activities require some level of arousal. Anxiety can be thought of as a part of our arousal system. Its great benefit is that it stops us undertaking reckless or speculative activities that might harm us. These activities include anything from dodging traffic, to avoiding certain foods, avoiding risky financial investments, to picking our friends.
The psychologists Robert Yerkes and J.D. Dodson (1908) represented the costs and benefits of arousal against performance by a simple graphical illustration:
Yerkes and Dodson pointed out that to increase or reach an optimal level of performance a certain level of arousal was both necessary and desirable. However, beyond a certain point - indicated by the top of the curve - performance declines sharply if the level of arousal becomes excessive. It depends on the task as to where the level of arousal is best pitched. For example, a task requiring concentration also requires low levels of arousal, whereas a task such as running would require higher levels of arousal, but there will be an optimum (if different) level of arousal for both tasks.
An area of the brain known as the anterior insula plays an important role in predicting harm and learning to avoid situations that may cause harm. In a recent experiment by psychologists at Stanford University*, the brains of volunteers were scanned during conditions where they anticipated losing money. Volunteers with greater activity of the insula were better at learning to avoid future financial loss in a separate game several months later. By contrast, those with less activity at the insula struggled to avoid loss and lost more money as a result.
It is tempting to equate activity in the anterior insula with the Yerkes Dodson law. It is known that excessive insula activity is associated with people who are chronically anxious. In turn this could lead to anxiety disorders and phobias.
Samanez-Larkin G.R, Gibbs S.E, Khanna K, Nielsen L, Carstensen L.L, Knutson B.(2007) Anticipation of monetary gain but not loss in healthy older adults. Nature Neuroscience 10(6):787-91