Future Tense (2022) puts to rest a huge and socially pervasive myth about anxiety: that it’s bad and should be avoided at all costs. Today, anxiety is considered an illness – something that should be treated with medicine or coped with in some other way. But that isn’t the case. Ultimately, anxiety is simply information, and it’s incredibly important for our survival. It’s up to us to make the best use of it.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Learn how to stop avoiding anxiety – and use it to your advantage instead.
- Anxiety isn’t the problem – our ways of coping with it are.
- Anxiety is meant to help, not harm, you.
- Let go of your anxiety when it isn’t useful.
- Don’t treat your kids like fragile, easily broken pottery.
- Discover where your anxiety is pointing you, and go there.
- About the author
Psychology, Health, Nutrition, Fitness, Dieting, Anxieties and Phobias, Mental Illness
Introduction: Learn how to stop avoiding anxiety – and use it to your advantage instead.
No one likes feeling anxious. It’s a feeling that’s impossible to ignore; it’s distressing, and it can even be debilitating.
But, in a way, anxiety also acts like a good friend. It tells us something – maybe something we don’t want to hear, but something important nevertheless. It warns us about potential consequences of our actions, outcomes that could happen in an uncertain future.
Don’t get us wrong: anxiety isn’t something you should glorify, seek out, or depend on. Instead, you should simply create a new mindset around it – one in which you explore anxiety, learn from it, and use it to your advantage. This summary will teach you why anxiety is necessary – and then show you how to make the most of it.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- how to differentiate between useful and useless anxiety;
- why trigger warnings may do more harm than good; and
- where your anxiety might be pointing you.
Anxiety isn’t the problem – our ways of coping with it are.
Butterflies in the stomach. A pounding heartbeat. A tight throat. Thoughts that loop over and over.
This is what anxiety feels like. But what causes it? Ultimately, anxiety always stems from something bad that we imagine could happen but that hasn’t actually happened yet. We experience it as a sensation in our bodies – tension, agitation, and jitteriness – and a quality of our thoughts: apprehension, dread, and worry.
Anxiety can be less or more intense. Regardless, we can usually talk ourselves through it and dial it back to a point where we feel comfortable and not overwhelmed.
However, we sometimes end up using the wrong thoughts and behaviors to cope with or avoid our anxiety. In doing so, we make it worse. When we begin to do this more often than not, normal anxiety transforms into an anxiety disorder.
The key characteristic of an anxiety disorder is a functional impairment – something that prevents you from living your life normally. For someone with an anxiety disorder, the distress caused by their feelings can last weeks, months, or years, and it interferes with their home life, work, and relationships.
Almost 20 percent of adults in the US – that’s over 60 million people – live with an anxiety disorder every year. Thirty-one percent of American adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Yet fewer than half of people with anxiety show lasting change from therapy.
One reason for this is that many people cope with anxiety poorly. Take the hypothetical example of Kabir, who at age 15 began feeling afraid to speak during class. Before having to give presentations, he refused to eat, didn’t sleep, and worried constantly. As time went on, he began to fear going to school altogether. He started missing days, which caused his grades to suffer. Then he began to feel afraid of any social situations whatsoever. He avoided parties and swim meets because of this fear. Over the following months, Kabir broke off all of his friendships and started to experience severe panic attacks.
Kabir went from feeling highly anxious to developing social anxiety, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and panic disorder. But his anxiety itself was not the problem. The problem was his way of coping with the anxiety – his refusal to eat and sleep, his staying home from school, and his isolating himself from his friends.
Kabir’s solutions helped him avoid his anxiety. But in doing so, they just intensified his feelings. In the following chapters, we’re going to discuss some much healthier coping mechanisms for anxiety.
Anxiety is meant to help, not harm, you.
The Trier Social Stress Test, or TSST, is a famous research task used to assess and measure the effects of social anxiety. In it, you – the participant – are asked to prepare a short presentation and then deliver it in front of a panel of judges. Your performance, you’re told, will also be videotaped and then compared to other people’s presentations.
While the judges watch you, they repeatedly frown and shake their heads. Next, you’re asked to perform a tricky math problem in front of the same panel of judges. You must count backward from 1,999 by 13, out loud, as fast as you can. Every time you pause, the judges tell you that you’re counting too slowly and that you need to speed up. When you make a mistake, you’re told that you were incorrect and that you must begin again from 1,999.
Sound like a nightmare? It’s supposed to! The TSST is designed to induce stress – and reliably does so in almost everyone. But it’s particularly challenging and painful for those who experience social anxiety.
In 2013, researchers at Harvard had an idea. They wondered what would happen if, before doing the TSST, participants were taught to anticipate their anxious responses. They would learn that their feelings are signs of being energized and prepared for an upcoming challenge – that anxiety evolved to help our ancestors survive by delivering blood and oxygen throughout the body. They would also read several scientific studies about the benefits of anxiety.
Guess what happened when the Harvard researchers actually conducted this experiment? The socially anxious participants who received the anxiety lesson before doing the TSST reported feeling less anxious and more confident. They also experienced very different physiological responses. When the participants believed that their anxious bodily reactions were helpful rather than harmful, their blood vessels were more relaxed and their heart rates were steadier and healthier.
The takeaway from this study is simple and important: by changing what we believe about anxiety, our bodies believe it too.
This doesn’t mean you should like, love, or even want anxiety. All you should do is be curious about it. Question what you think you know about anxiety. You may believe that anxiety is psychologically and medically harmful. But once you truly understand that anxiety actually helps you perform at your best, your anxiety will do you much less harm. Instead of hurting you, your anxiety will help you respond as healthy bodies do when striving to succeed at a difficult task.
Let go of your anxiety when it isn’t useful.
On the surface, anxiety seems to have a lot in common with fear. But there are a few important differences.
Imagine reaching into a box in your attic, like the author did one day, and feeling something furry and alive. You immediately snatch your hand back, your heart racing and your mind alert. You look inside the box and see that it’s a harmless little mouse. You close the box, bring it downstairs, and release the mouse outside. Your heart rate slows back down, and you’re calm again. You’ve responded to the danger and alleviated the fear, which is a reflexive, automatic response.
Anxiety is different. You feel anxious the next time you reach into a box in your attic, uncertain whether you might find another rodent hiding in there. Anxiety makes you feel apprehensive about an imagined future and vigilant about what might happen. And that’s why it’s hard to bear: it happens in between learning that something bad could happen and then waiting for it to arrive.
Anxiety is useful when it provides you with information that you can act on here and now, or at least in the near future. But it’s not always useful or straightforward. It’s worth getting to know the difference.
Say you wake up thinking about a problem your daughter is dealing with at school, a presentation you have to give at work that day, or a major repair you need to have done in your home. You tell yourself to stop thinking about it. But your thoughts keep circling back anyway. This type of anxiety is a signal telling you what exactly is bothering you and how you should act to get rid of it. This is the useful type of anxiety.
Now, on the other hand, imagine that you go to the doctor for a biopsy on a strange-looking mole. There’s nothing you can do, no action you can take, until you get the results back and find out if it’s cancerous or not. You’re trapped in your anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and helpless. This is a useless form of anxiety.
So what do you do when you feel that kind of useless anxiety? The best – and perhaps only – option is to set it aside for later.
This doesn’t mean suppressing the anxiety, ignoring it, or trying to erase it. Instead, it just means taking a break from it and coming back to it later, when you might find that it has lessened or even gone altogether.
Overwhelmingly, research shows that the best way to let go of anxiety is to immerse yourself in the present moment. One way to do that is to step outside and go for a walk in nature. Take the time to focus deeply on the intricate details of the trees. Notice the play of light filtering through the branches, and examine the veining on the leaves. Perhaps listen to some music to help transport your mind elsewhere.
This will give you some space and time away from your anxiety, breaking its vicious cycle. When you come back to it, you’ll be better able to think about and study it so you can find a way to make it useful – or at least less overwhelming.
Don’t treat your kids like fragile, easily broken pottery.
Ever seen a trigger warning appear at the beginning of a movie, television show, or book? This is a short content warning that informs viewers that the images, ideas, or words contained in a work may be distressing to some people.
Trigger warnings have existed for years, particularly within online communities. However, more recently, the use of trigger warnings in the classroom has led to a heated debate. Some professors argue that trigger warnings provide students the chance to mentally prepare themselves to encounter a distressing topic. Other professors say that actually, trigger warnings encourage students to avoid uncomfortable ideas, which makes them less able to engage rationally with views they find challenging.
So far, the evidence favors the anti–trigger warning crowd. In 2018, for example, several hundred participants were asked to read literary passages with varying degrees of potentially disturbing content. Some participants received trigger warnings before reading the passages, while others didn’t. The result? The participants who got the trigger warnings reported greater increases in anxiety. That was especially true for those who believed that words can cause harm. What this suggests is that trigger warnings can cause unneeded distress and may actually harm students’ ability to be emotionally resilient.
Trigger warnings are just one sign of an increasing trend: the desire to shield our children from any form of distress or pain that might come their way.
It’s a normal parental instinct to want to protect your children. However, preventing them from feeling pain is not the answer. And often, parents try to make their children’s anxiety go away because it makes them uncomfortable.
To truly flourish, humans need a little bit of challenge, uncertainty, pain, and disorder. Think about the human immune system. The immune system learns how to respond to germs and pathogens by being exposed to them. In a similar way, people don’t learn how to respond to difficult situations with creativity, effort, and vigor if they aren’t exposed to those situations first.
This is why you shouldn’t act like a snowplow parent – someone who tries to remove every possible obstacle from your children’s paths. Too often, parents of anxious children endlessly accommodate them. If a child is afraid of airplanes, the family goes on a road trip instead. If a child panics when separated from his parents, they spend every possible moment with him – even if it means allowing him to skip school. These coping mechanisms might help the parents feel more comfortable, but, ultimately, it’s damaging for the kids.
So stop trying to take away your children’s anxiety, and instead teach them to manage it. Allow your children to be anxious, but support them at the same time. Your daughter refuses to go to school because she doesn’t want to be separated from her father? Tell her, “I know you feel upset right now, but you can handle it. You’ll be OK.” And then send her to school anyway. Your son is afraid of unknown guests in the house? Invite trusted friends and family over for short visits at first – and then for longer ones over time. Make sure that your child mingles so that he can learn to feel more comfortable. And remember: your children are not as fragile as you fear.
Discover where your anxiety is pointing you, and go there.
Anxiety is the main driver of obsessive-compulsive disorders. People who experience these disorders repeatedly engage in certain behaviors, like hand-washing, checking lights, or seeking reassurance from other people. These behaviors provide temporary relief for feelings of anxiety. But the anxiety always returns, and then the compulsions must be performed again. The cycle repeats because compulsions don’t actually solve a problem or help a person grow. In other words, they are not purposeful.
Yet anxiety itself is purposeful. It’s connected to the circuitry in our brains that’s responsible for seeking rewards and feeling the pleasure of attaining them. Therefore, anxiety isn’t just about avoiding disaster. It’s also about achieving satisfaction and delight.
In a way, if we listen carefully, anxiety can point us toward our purpose.
The author, for example, could never have successfully built her research lab without her anxiety. Anxiety causes her to be ever-curious, to organize her space, to create careful to-do lists, and to pursue her research projects tirelessly.
You too can channel your anxiety toward pursuing your purpose. This doesn’t mean some kind of burning passion or grandiose vision you have about the future. It’s just about the values and priorities that feel most meaningful to you. To understand what those are, try a technique called self-affirmation.
Here’s what you do. First, consider the following list of eleven different domains: artistic skills and aesthetic appreciation, a sense of humor, relationships with friends and family, spontaneity, social skills, athletics, musical ability and appreciation, physical attractiveness, creativity, business and managerial skills, and romantic values.
Out of these, which are the top three that make you who you are – that make you feel good about yourself? Once you’ve got them, take a few minutes to explore and write about each one. Keep writing until you feel like you can’t anymore . . . and then keep writing.
This technique, which was developed by researchers at Stanford University, has been proven to lift people’s moods, improve their concentration and learning, and make their relationships more fulfilling. And it’s as simple as expressing and reflecting on what you hold dear and why! Even your physical health can get a boost from the exercise – and the benefits hold for months, and sometimes years, later.
Channel your anxiety toward pursuing whatever purpose you’ve identified. Used in this way, anxiety becomes a form of courage. It provides your fuel – your momentum – and helps you release your strength. And when you take purposeful, meaningful action, it will naturally go away.
Like a good friend, anxiety won’t hold your hand the whole way. It will just point you in the right direction. Then it’s up to you to go there.
There was a lot of great information, but the most important thing to remember is this:
Anxiety has a bad reputation. It’s a sensation that no one wants to feel, and everyone seems to want to avoid. However, anxiety evolved as a way for us to plan and prepare for an uncertain future, to address potential threats, and to let us know when we’ve taken actions that will be good for us. Instead of trying to escape anxiety, we should shift our mindset to view and use anxiety as the helpful tool that it really is.
Another quick word of advice:
Strive for excellence, not perfection.
Like anxiety, perfectionism is a state that keeps us focused on the future and caring about whether we’re taking the right actions. Perfectionism can stimulate us to achieve and create. But it also causes us to hold ourselves to unrealistic, overly demanding expectations that make us relentlessly self-critical when we fail to meet them. Instead of perfectionism, strive for excellencism – setting high standards but not beating yourself up when you don’t meet them. Be open to trying new experiences and approaches to problem-solving, and treat your mistakes as learning experiences rather than reasons to criticize yourself.
Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Hunter College, the City University of New York, where she directs the Emotion Regulation Lab, and is cofounder of the digital therapeutics company Wise Therapeutics. She received her doctoral and postdoctoral training in clinical psychology at The Pennsylvania State University and New York University School of Medicine. She has published over one hundred scientific articles in top peer-reviewed journals and delivered more than three hundred presentations at academic conferences and for corporate clients. Dr. Dennis-Tiwary has been featured throughout the media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, ABC, CNN, NPR, and Bloomberg Television. She lives in New York City.
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary | Linktree
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