How stress and anxiety can actually be helpful
Everyone feels stressed and anxious once in a while. Both stress and anxiety are basic emotions that can be useful to help us react to difficult and threatening situations quickly and effectively.
When you come across a threat, your in-built stress response system is activated and multiple physical reactions enable you to shift into a state of alertness and respond appropriately.
This can also be useful when you’re studying. If, for example, you're anxious about taking an exam or giving a presentation, this fear can evoke a stress reaction in your body that stimulates you to do your very best and perform better. In other words, it makes you more alert and temporarily boosts your ability to cope.
When anxiety takes over
Sometimes, however, stress and anxiety shoot past their target. When your anxiety is no longer in proportion to its cause and this persists for a longer period of time (i.e. several months), it becomes problematic.
If the fear of failure gets the upper hand, doing what you need to do creates an unrealistic fear. In addition to physical reactions such as clamminess, heart palpitations and headaches, negative thoughts such as "I can't do it anyway", "I'll screw up again anyway" or "I'm not good enough" also develop.
These thoughts often affect your self-image. You almost always speak negatively about yourself. You believe that if you do something well, you owe it to pure chance and not to your own abilities. The realistic view of your own abilities and strengths falls away.
Fear of failure also affects your behaviour. Not everyone reacts in the same way.
- Active fear of failure: You try to avoid failure and fear by trying extremely hard. You spend all your time on perfect preparation and do not allow yourself any relaxation. This is at the expense of other important activities and good self-care. Over time your ability to cope diminishes and you become exhausted.
- Passive fear of failure: Here the opposite is true. Out of fear of confrontation with an experience of failure, you avoid doing what you need to do. You procrastinate and spend a lot of time on secondary activities such as tidying your desk. In this way, you feel less anxious in the short term, but you increase the chance of failure experiences in the future.
Students with active fear of failure often perform better than those with passive fear of failure.