Anxiety is a feature of evolution, not a bug. That doesn’t make it less uncomfortable, though. The good news is that we can harness it to our benefit, says Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist and the author of “Good Anxiety.” By tapping into what she calls the six “superpowers” of anxiety, we can redirect these uncomfortable feelings into positive outcomes.
Suzuki explains the neurological root of anxiety, including how the amygdala automatically activates when we are scared or stressed. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex — the rational, executive function center of the brain — shuts down when we need it most.
But we’re not powerless against our brain, and there are techniques we can use, like cognitive flexibility, to make our anxiety work for us.
WENDY SUZUKI: Brain plasticity is the brain's extraordinary ability to change and rewire itself in response to the external environment. I've tried to use and explore the boundaries of brain plasticity to address some very challenging issues, particularly our high anxiety levels. You hear the word "anxiety," you think, "Oh God, this thing I wanna kick out the door. It's a disease. I have it. I don't know how to get rid of it."
One of the first things that I wanted to do was flip the script on our whole mindset around anxiety. Anxiety is a normal human emotion. We all have it, okay, so you're never gonna get rid of it. It evolved to protect us, and so my whole book, "Good Anxiety," is teaching us to look at anxiety in a different way. We can use neuroscience and tools from psychology to learn how to take advantage of anxiety and learn about the gifts or superpowers that come from it.
Anxiety is the feeling of fear or worry typically associated with situations of uncertainty. The amygdala is a brain structure that is automatically activated when you hear that bump in the night that launches your anxiety, and the brain area that could help that calming in that situation is the prefrontal cortex, the area that's involved in executive function, that helps you order your day. But unfortunately, in situations of high stress, high anxiety, what happens is not only is your amygdala activated but your prefrontal cortex gets shut down too, so that makes the situation even worse.
One thing that trips essentially all of us up is something called the 'negativity bias,' which says that we are more prone to see the negative sides of things than the positive. What happens is, if you're tired, if you're stressed, if lots of problems are coming up, you will tend to see the world in, "Oh my God, this person hates me. I'm never gonna get the job. I'm never going to lose the weight that I wanna lose." All these things become part of the big stone of anxiety dragging along with you.
'Cognitive flexibility' is the idea that we are able to look at and approach situations in lots of different ways. We are habit-forming animals, and sometimes without even knowing it you are approaching the same situation the same way that you approached it when you were six years old. Cognitive flexibility says that if there is a realization, there are other ways to approach it. You have the ability to do just that.
I dove into trying to find gifts from all the different kinds of anxiety, and that's how I came up with the six gifts or superpowers of anxiety. Let me mention my top three:
The first one is the superpower of productivity, that "what if? list." What if you didn't do that, or what if you did that and you didn't do it right? That anxiety is focused on things that are important to you in life. That is the key.
Evolutionarily, anxiety evolved to have us put an action on it. 2.5 million years ago, it was either you fight the danger that was causing anxiety or you run away from it. That is the fight or flight response. The way to transform it is to turn that what if list into a to-do list. Put an action on each one of them, whether it's asking a friend for help, doing something, Googling something, and go tick through them one by one.
Superpower number two is the superpower of flow. Flow is a psychological state. It's those moments that you're doing something that you're really good at. Times stand still. It's like you're moving in slow motion and everything is just going beautifully. All the data out there says that anxiety can eliminate flow. I know I wanted to talk about flow, but I couldn't just say, "Well, sorry, if you have anxiety, no flow for you." Okay, maybe it's not classic flow. Maybe it's "micro flow." Your own anxiety can make your own moments of micro flow which we all have during the day, even if you don't realize you do, be even flowier.
Superpower number three. Think about that anxiety that is most familiar to you, your most common form of anxiety. You know what it feels like. You know what it looks like. All you have to do is notice when others might be suffering from that same form of anxiety, and here's your superpower. All you have to do is give a kind word, a simple helping hand in that situation, and I love this superpower because I can't think of anything that we need more in the world today than higher levels of empathy.
An 'activist mindset' is one that is flexible, that can look at a situation and see lots of different possibilities, everything from that negativity bias all the way to, "Oh, actually, maybe this is gonna teach me something really interesting, really new." To have an activist mindset requires cognitive flexibility. You're gonna try something new. Sometimes it's hard, but if you practice it in different ways every single day it can be something that becomes a very powerful tool.
This is a really important part of my book, and I think it was emphasized because of this situation that really shaped the book, which is a difficult passing of two of my family members, and really coming out of that with a beautiful example of an activist mindset. Everybody's going to experience the loss of a loved one during their lifetime. My activist mindset was knowing that all of that pain and that loss and that sadness was undergirded by love for these people, and that was my activist mindset. I brought that beautiful, helpful, almost life-saving example of an activist mindset to my addressing anxiety. What is it about my anxiety that is difficult? Can I bring a superpower or a gift from that as an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to learn more about yourself?
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