Editor’s Note: Many people use the word stress and anxiety interchangeably when symptoms are mild, which is what this article speaks to. If you have concerns about physical symptoms or feel overwhelmed or stuck in a way that interferes with daily life, seek help from a physician or a mental health professional or call the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline at 800-950-6264. If you are in a crisis requiring immediate help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
I’ve never felt as anxious or cried as much as I have during the pandemic, and I know I am not the only one.
Anxiety is at the forefront of my social feeds, emails and video meetings. Hearing people say “My anxiety was triggered by…” or “I woke up feeling anxious” or “My anxiety is next-level” is the norm rather than the exception.
I rarely see anxiety referenced positively. Instead, it is a catalyst for self-doubt, a barrier to action and an interrupter of everyday necessities like sleep.
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That is, until I talked to Wendy Suzuki, a New York University professor of neural science and psychology, who wants to change the narrative around anxiety. In “Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion,” Suzuki details the biological underpinnings of anxiety and helps us reframe our perspective on it, so we feel empowered instead of helpless.
Not sure this is possible? Consider these science-driven realities detailed in Suzuki’s book.
Humans are supposed to be anxious. Anxiety – and underlying physiological stress responses such as elevated heart rate and butterflies in the stomach – evolved to protect humans from environmental threats.
Anxiety serves a protective purpose
An important first step in reframing anxiety is understanding it continues to serve that protective purpose in modern life by putting you on alert and into action, Suzuki said. Your anxiety is trying to tell you something.
Anxiety elicits uncomfortable emotions. Suzuki suggests listening to and appreciating these feelings, rather than running away from them.
“There’s a push these days towards teaching people how to be happy,” Suzuki said. “It’s an attractive idea but the truth is, we are complicated organisms with an array of emotions that are there for a reason. The reason is not to annoy you. Your feelings are there to tell you about yourself and what you value and what is happening in your world.”
Anxiety often feels overwhelming and intractable, but Suzuki – who has spent her career in science studying neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt its response based on environmental input) – feels optimistic about anxiety.
Your brain is wired for change
“Your brain can respond positively if you feed it well, for example, with good food and exercise,” Suzuki said. “Or it can shrink and die if you have too much stress.” She recommends identifying situations that trigger anxiety (such as disappointment in work) and favorite self-soothing techniques (such as talking to a friend) as important steps.
Once you know your triggers and self-soothing techniques, you’ll be better equipped to reframe your approach to, and insight into, anxiety; for example, opting to sidestep a known trigger or preparing for a situation you anticipate as anxiety provoking.
“The good news is, everyone has potential to change,” Suzuki said.
Simple anxiety-reduction tactics have impact
Deep breathing and exercise are common stress relief tactics, suggested often enough that they may elicit an eye roll, but they are accessible coping tactics with significant neurophysiological impact.
“When you slow your breath down, you activate a part of your nervous system devoted to de-stressing you,” said Suzuki. She notes that the counterpart to the fight-or-flight physiological survival response is the parasympathetic rest-and-digest response that calms the body down, including decreasing heart rate.
“You can’t force your heart rate to slow down, but you can consciously start to breathe deeply and slowly. And you can do it stealthily,” said Suzuki. She recommends parents practice deep breathing with kids, given that this quiet coping tactic can serve kids if they feel anxious at school.
Physical activity is also crucial. Suzuki notes that even a simple action like a walk around the neighborhood can change your mood.
Getting your heart rate up during physical activity can lower anxiety, depression and hostility, Suzuki said. “Every time you move, you release a bunch of neurochemicals – dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline. It’s a neurological bubble bath for your brain that is a great way to turn down the volume on anxiety.”
Choose positive affirmations instead of perfectionism
Suzuki notes that an important part of learning how to cope with anxiety is letting go of perfectionism.
“You sabotage yourself and your resilience with a negative perfectionist ‘you failed’ lens,” Suzuki said. “What you want to do for your resilience is build yourself up and be your own best friend. If all of us spent more time focused on what we are doing well, that could help alleviate anxiety levels from a different point of view.”
She recommends countering perfectionist-driven anxiety with positive affirmations. “We need an easy, more joyful way to address anxiety. For example, say one nice thing to yourself once an hour and it becomes an easier task.”
The goal is to befriend your anxiety, and eventually even become grateful for the role anxiety plays in life. “Anxiety is a prickly friend, but sometimes prickly friends are useful,” Suzuki said.
Your joyful memories can help you now
Suzuki also recommends leveraging the power of positive experiences to counteract anxiety, since repeatedly thinking about positive memories can improve your sense of well-being through something called joy conditioning.
“Joy conditioning is a direct counterbalance to fear conditioning, the latter of which happens naturally and serves a protective purpose,” Suzuki said. Since humans do not have a reflexive joy conditioning response, self-training is required.
Start by identifying a joyful, funny memory. “It’s especially good if the memory is associated with smell, since olfaction evokes memory well,” Suzuki said. During anxious times, draw on those joyful memories to reduce your anxiety. This also works with anxious kids.
Anxiety can be elicited by countless experiences and situations, and while those situations will be highly individual, the potential to use anxiety to connect with something greater and direly needed – empathy – is universal.
“Everyone has their own unique example of something that makes them anxious. And if they turn that knowledge outward, they can become experts in identifying anxiety in others and ultimately using that awareness to help someone else,” Suzuki said.
If anxiety is the prickly friend that can help people tap into empathy, it is a useful friend indeed.
Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster and creative director. You can find her work at christinekoh.com.