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Fight or flight: your anxiety might be doing you more good than you think

Updated: Apr 8

Believe it or not, being a hyper anxious person could actually help you to become more successful in life.

Are you a Nervous Nellie who can’t sit still for long? Do your friends and family describe you as highly-strung, wound-too-tight, or neurotic?

Perhaps you’re just wired with a hale and hearty fight-or-flight response. Believe it or not, this may actually be a good thing.

Existing in a heightened state of arousal means you are always primed for action, and you react to your surroundings and circumstances with animal-like stealth. If used properly, your overactive fight-or-flight response won’t just help you survive in the world, it might even help you out-run the pack.

The term "fight or fllight" was coined in 1915 by doctor and physiologist Walter Cannon to describe the body's biological response to stress, when the sympathetic nervous system reacts to perceived dangers in its environment by flooding the bloodstream with the stimulant hormone cortisol.

Also known as the “stress hormone”, cortisol mobilizes the brain and body, preparing it for action. But cortisol needs a physical release, otherwise, it can wreck havoc by raising blood pressure, sugar levels, and cholesterol, contributing to weight gain and heart disease, lowering immunity and bone density, and impairing memory and attention. Even worse, a surplus of cortisol can leave you feeling tense and irritable throughout the day.

According to Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye, there are two types of stress that release cortisol. Distress — bad stress, for example an ongoing feud at work, divorce, or a terminal illness in the family; and eustress — good stress, which might be triggered by situations such as getting ready for a first date with someone you really fancy, delivering a speech for an award you are about to receive, or scaling mount Everest.

“Eustress creates a ‘seize-the-day’ heightened state of arousal, which is invigorating and often linked with a tangible goal. Cortisol returns to normal upon completion of the task. Distress, or free floating anxiety, doesn’t provide an outlet for the cortisol and causes the fight-or-flight mechanism to backfire,” writes endurance athlete Christopher Bergland in “Psychology Today”.

So if you’re highly anxious, rather than battle your biology, why not embrace your fight-or-flight response to improve your life? Change distress to eustress, keep your eye on the “tangible goal”, focus on the “completion of the task”, and let your aggression and fear work to your advantage.


You have foresight, and a nose for opportunity: As a person with a healthy fight-or-flight response, you are constantly alert to potential threats and make your personal survival a priority. You know when to advance, and when to back down. When it comes to love and career, you are probably good at preempting rejections, setbacks, conflicts of interest and failures; you can sniff out competition a mile away. You also have a knack for preempting times of romantic or economic famine, and if you’re resourceful, you find ways to tide yourself over dry spells.

In his book “My Age of Anxiety”, editor of the “Atlantic”, Scott Stossel reasons that because anxious people scan their environments more vigilantly than their more assured peers, they tend to be better attuned to emotional and social signals in others. This gives them the advantage of a more accurate appraisal of social situations, and thus the chance to anticipate or adapt their behaviors accordingly.

Like an animal that is always concern with survival, you are in touch with instincts that lead you to new social, romantic and entrepreneurial pastures. You have an in-built compass directing you to sources of sustenance (in the form of social support, sex, affection and income), and all you have to do is learn how to use it.

You always have a procurement and exit strategy: Like a tiger stalking prey, or a rabbit on the run, you always have one eye on the kill, and the other on the exit. When dating, despite your nervousness, you have schemes in place for winning the mate of your dreams. You’ll usually know their schedule, and where and when there’ll be opportunities to inundate them with your scent, before you pounce.

You excel at forward planning, plots and game charts. You thrive on deadlines and enjoy beating them because you like having something to chase and overtake. Career wise, you always have the latest version of your resume on stand by, just in case something goes wrong at your current workplace, or something better shows up. You always have a list of potential new clients within easy reach, or a new project in the pipeline. When encircling a crowded multistory car park, you know exactly where to go to find an empty lot.

You have what it take to get out of a bad job, relationship or tenancy agreement. You will probably have multiple saving accounts, investments, and insurance for yourself, your spouse or children. It’s important to you that you’ve got all your bases covered, and this can’t be a bad thing.

Anxiety is energy, but energy nonetheless: Your nervous energy can translate to motivation and gumption. Seldom do you suffer from sloth or listlessness, and you may even function perfectly well on less than five hours of sleep.

Because cortisol is a stimulant, it readies you for decision-making and action. It endows you with clarity, confidence and courage to choose a course of action, take on a new challenge, confront a person or situation, or engage in a difficult task. Your cortisol-enhanced biochemistry might mean that you have a greater reserve of fuel to manifest your ideas than people with low cortisol levels.

Action is your middle name: You only feel calm once you’ve accomplished a task. This can make you a very productive person, and someone who really delights in a job well done. Because cortisol needs a physical release, you often feel compelled to do something, even if it is playing Candy Crush, dusting the shelves, or making a “movies to watch” list on a post-it. Rarely do you flounder of float about in a dreamy state of idleness. Your faculties and senses need to be actively engaged in order for you to get into the Zen-zone.

Because you are an action person, if you’re functioning in a state of distress, you’ll probably turn to self-destructive activities like chain smoking or binge eating. But once you’ve shifted to a state of eustress, you’ll be in your groove, moving, shaking, and making things happen.

You’re a good leader: In an article in “Fast Company”, Jane Porter reports that because anxiety is an integral component of setting, attaining and surpassing one’s goals, it is a trait that is commonly found in industry leaders and CEOs. “Without anxiety, little would be accomplished,” says David Barlow, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University in the article. “The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops might not be planted,” he adds.

In “My Age of Anxiety”, Stossel explains, “too little anxiety and you will not perform at your peak … too much anxiety and you will not perform well; but with just the right amount of anxiety — enough to elevate your physiological arousal and to focus your attention intensely on the task … you’ll be more likely to deliver a peak performance.”

Learn to reign in your anxiety using some of the tips in this article, and there’s a good chance you’ll soar.

You know how to live and work in a pack: Contrary to popular wisdom, anxious neurotics actually work better in a team than unflappable extroverts. Two studies found that the status of extroverts in workplace task groups decreased over time, while the status of neurotics tended to increase over time.

The studies by Rutgers and UCLA revealed that while the cool and collected extrovert tends to instill confidence initially, they usually disappoint because they fail to contribute as much as they had promised at the outset, whereas the industrious neurotic, who is eager to please and fearful of disapproval tends to be a generous and steady contributor who wins more votes in the long run.

“Our intuition about anxious, neurotic employees and colleagues is that their volatility and negativity is going to make them a drag on the team,” said Corinne Bendersky, an associate professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, who led one of the studies. “What we don’t appreciate is that an aspect of that neurotic personality is really an anxiety of not wanting to disappoint our peers and our colleagues. Neurotics can actually be motivated to work really hard especially in collaborative situations,” says Bendersky.


  1. Exercise: Get rid of excess cortisol and unleash stress-reducing endorphins through exercise. A morning exercise routine is a great way to steady yourself for the approaching day. Yoga is a good option as it regulates your breathing and helps improve attention as well. 20–30 minutes of activity most days of the week can play a huge role in lowering cortisol each day and over time.

  2. Meditate: One symptom of anxiety is racing, obsessive or negative thoughts. Numerous studies have shown that regular meditation can help ameliorate anxiety. There are many books, apps and podcasts available to help you get started.

  3. Socialize: Social connection is important for psychological wellbeing. The relatively new psychological term “tend and befriend” is a stress response model that is the opposite of fight-or-flight. It refers to nurturing and supporting social behaviors that foster a sense of security, and can act as a protective barrier to distress. Sharing a laugh with friends and spending quality time with family and loved one can help nervous individuals feel safer and more at ease in their environments.

  4. Set goals: Making goals, creating vision boards, to do lists or other forms of written action plans will give you better idea of where you want to go and what you should avoid as you chart your course. This will take away some of the fears associated with embarking and completing bigger or more challenging tasks.

  5. Pet projects: Besides paid work, it is important to have your own personal interests or hobbies. If your body produces high levels of cortisol, one of the most effective ways to transform the stress you feel from uncomfortable distress to pleasurable eustress is to engage in an activity that you find intrinsically rewarding — painting, gardening or playing the piano for example. This will allow you to get into the “flow” — a pleasurable mental state of complete immersion in a single task. When you are in the flow, you are fully absorbed, free from self-consciousness, and living in the moment. The frenzy of your anxiety will abate as you focus on doing something you love.

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