Make Use of Good Anxiety

We have all experienced anxiety on some level at various points in our lives. COVID 19 and the global response to it have brought massive changes and deep uncertainty since the start of 2020. Before then, 90% of Americans in the room raised their hands when asked if they had experienced daily anxiety. Wendy Suzuki, a neural science and psychology professor at NYU, says that number has gone way up. But she reminds us that at its core, anxiety is really a protective mechanism. Like all emotions, it serves an evolutionary purpose and is key to survival.

Is anxiety always a bad thing to get rid of?
When is it a superpower you need the most?
How do you rein in anxiety to benefit from it?

This is episode 43. Make use of good anxiety

Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, a productivity show on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach and host for this show.

We have all experienced anxiety on some level at various points in our lives. COVID 19 and the global response to it have brought massive changes and deep uncertainty since the start of 2020. Before then, 90% of Americans in the room raised their hand when asked if they had experienced daily anxiety.

Wendy Suzuki, a neural science and psychology professor at NYU, says that number has gone way up.

Anxiety is generally defined as worry over an imminent possible event or worry over uncertainty. The threat is possible but may or may not occur. You can get stuck in anxiety mode if you can’t tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined threat, or between a potential threat and excessive stimulation.

Anxiety is a psychological and physical response to stress. The amygdala has an automatic response to real or imagined threats. It activates the reptilian brain. This includes the hypothalamus, which is in charge of the sympathetic nervous system. It leads to a faster heart rate and respiration rate, shallow breath, and adrenaline high under high stress. It releases cortisol and glucose and moves you into fight, flight or freeze mode. Bad anxiety is when this stress response goes into overdrive.

In 1938, Orson Welles broadcasted an episode of Mercury Theatre on the Air, an American radio drama. The War of the Worlds episode was based on the HG Wells novel about a Martian invasion. These were the days leading up to the Second World War, when many listeners mistook the radio drama for a real news broadcast. Panic spread and many people fled their homes, with some reporting they saw flashing lights and smelled poison gas.

While mass hysteria is not common, it shows how the reptilian brain can overpower the executive functioning part of our brain. When the environment is filled with tension, lack of real support, and fear-based messages, anxiety and worry can spiral out of control.

Currently, 28% or nearly 1/3 of Americans are diagnosed with a clinical, anxiety disorder. This is different from everyday anxiety. Examples are generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and OCD. Symptoms of anxiety may include poor focus, insomnia, high state of fear, muscle tension, and fast heartbeat. Pharmaceutical medication is often prescribed to quell extreme anxiety and redirect the nervous system.

Chronic anxiety weakens the immune system, contributes to heart disease, impairs brain health, creates indigestion, and makes us less productive. It causes negative plasticity in the brain, changes our biochemistry and raises blood pressure. It’s no wonder we think of anxiety as bad for our health and wellbeing.

But Dr. Suzuki reminds us that at its core, anxiety is really a protective mechanism. Like all emotions, it serves an evolutionary purpose and is key to survival.

Your anxiety often tells you what’s important, what needs attention, what you value, and what to avoid. By befriending anxiety, you can build resilience, patience, compassion and empathy, and leverage nervous energy to deal with challenges.

The fight, flight or freeze stress response system is part of the oldest part of our brain, or what’s called the reptilian brain. Within the limbic system is the hippocampus, which consolidates information and forms long-term memories and personal histories.

A bit of anxiety can also put you in the optimal state to perform a difficult task that requires strength and stamina. If your interest and attention are not primed enough, you will fail at the task.

But just like fine wine and delicious chocolate, you can have too much of a good thing. The Yerkes–Dodson curve explains that performance gets stronger with more stimuli, which increases attention and interest. But beyond the point of optimal stimuli, performance starts to wane due to high anxiety. This can happen when you’re about to take a test, give a presentation, or pitch an idea in a meeting.

Anxiety becomes a problem when it’s chronic and interferes with daily functioning, whether in your personal life or professional obligations. It may cause you to self-isolate and withdraw, procrastinate and miss project deadlines, or take on destructive habits and addictive behaviors.

In her book, Good Anxiety, Dr. Suzuki provides a toolbox for turning down anxiety so it doesn’t become chronic and is beneficial. She says these strategies tap into and activate the natural destressing part of our nervous system.

Here are four tools Dr. Suzuki recommends:

First, is Deep Breathing. This is one of the oldest forms of meditation and one of the oldest practices to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. It slows down the heart rate and respiration rate when they are too high and pumps blood back from the muscles to the heart.

Diaphramatic breathwork can be done even when you’re in the midst of a tense moment. It helps you come back to the present moment, generate a sense of calm, and strengthen the prefrontal cortex in the brain to make better decisions.

The 4 x 4 box breathing method is a quick way to destress the body and calm the mind. I use it myself when I have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

First, you inhale slowly for four counts Then you hold your breath for four counts. Then you exhale slowly for four counts. Then rest with the breath out for four counts.

You can do this when you’re seated in an upright position, with both feet touching the floor and hands in your lap, palms up or down. Keep the spine long and relaxed. Or you can do this while lying down. The savasana or corpse pose, in yoga, is a good reclining position.

A second tool is Movement. Moving the body activates BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which protects, maintains and grows brain cells, especially in the hippocampus where memories are formed. It releases neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, which enhance our mood and make us feel grounded, calm and in control. Dr. Suzuki says it’s like giving your brain a neurochemical bubble bath.

Moving the body could include small things like going for a power walk outside or walking up and down the stairs. To get the most benefits, you need to do cardio exercise for about 45 minutes, 2 to 3 times per week.

The third tool is Joy Conditioning. This is actively recalling and sorting through memories of your most joyful experiences. What was an experience or event from the past that brought fun, laughter, awe and happiness?

Building episodic memories that bring joy and positive emotions is healthy for your brain, especially the hippocampus. Gratitude and appreciation will allow you to work with anxiety, instead of needing to resist it.

Joy conditioning is a direct, positive response to fear conditioning. It’s how to worry well. It’s a proactive practice that involves conscious control, while fear conditioning is automatic and accumulated.

Olfactory association with a joyful memory is very beneficial. The smell of lavender oil, an oatmeal cookie or a certain dish can trigger memories of a joyful experience, even way back from early childhood.

Celebrating the small wins and positive affirmations in the morning and evening stimulate brain cells and keep anxiety in check. Even a simple ritual like drinking tea or coffee mindfully, in silence, will do wonders. Morning rituals and evening routines are essential to changing your baseline state. Check out episodes 14 and 15 of The Incrementalist for more.

The fourth tool is Healthy, Social Support. In the COVID-19 era, people are more isolated than usual. As social beings, we need to have interactions with family, friends, neighbors and colleagues to function well. Just making small talk with the coffee barrister or smiling at someone you walk by goes a long way. Online technologies like video calls and social media do help, but they are not enough to replace in person relationships.

In heightened states of tension, you might need to choose carefully. Certain relationships are better than others for certain purposes and in different contexts. Ghosting a friend is not ideal. You could, for example, just let the friend know you’re taking a break and will reconnect when the time is right.
Positive coping strategies create an enriched environment. They help to avoid an impoverished environment, which shrinks the brain.

In a classic experiment, Marian Cleeves Diamond conducted a study where rats that had toys and companions (other rats) in their environment had positive plasticity in their brain. They were able to learn and adapt better. Their visual cortex, motor cortex and sensory cortex in the brain had all grown. Meanwhile, rats in the impoverished environment, where there were no toys and no companions had a lower capacity to learn. They had smaller and less developed brains. The research showed the brain is not static and does not always degenerate as you get older.

Despite the chaos, uncertainty and instability in your external world, you can create an inner world that is built on good anxiety. When the stress load gets overwhelming, and the brain or body doesn’t know the difference between a real threat and imagined threat, it’s time to turn down the anxiety.

You explore and investigate your anxiety, sharpen your critical thinking skills, reframe problems and ask good questions. You’re not suppressing the anxiety by consuming drugs and alcohol, binge watching TV shows and YouTube videos, and overeating chocolate and chips.

To dial down the anxiety, you list out and use positive coping methods that work for you. This could be breathwork, meditation, yoga, long walks, exercising at the gym and creative hobbies.

Approach anxiety with an exploratory mindset. It is biological feedback to learn about yourself, to wake up, and to attend to what matters to you. You can prevent worst case scenarios by filling in the gaps, addressing what you control and letting go of what you don’t, and turning your what ifs into a to do list or priorities list.

Embracing good anxiety helps you to avoid toxic positivity. This is when you’re expected to maintain a positive mindset no matter how grim the situation, and where emotions like grief, sadness, anger and fear are suppressed.

It doesn’t help to tell yourself or someone else not to worry. Worry is there for a reason and for your benefit. You just need to approach it with curiosity so you can get creative and productive with it.
In a way, uncertainty is a good thing because there are many possible outcomes. Sometimes it’s more probable you will get a good outcome than a bad outcome. And if you have the ability to learn, adapt and bounce back from a bad outcome, it serves you in the long run.

Being able to fully experience a wide range of emotions allows you to compare and contrast and appreciate positive experiences even more. This is why it’s important to experience the expansiveness of all your emotions so they serve you best.

You can use calming strategies to shift your mindset and transform anxiety into a good friend. Don’t try to get rid of anxiety. Learn to relate to it better to reap the benefits.

While chronic anxiety and anxiety disorders are bad for our brain health and physical wellbeing, good anxiety in your daily life is essential. It can give you leverage and momentum as long as you don’t get bogged down and stuck with it.

If you found value in this episode, hit the like and share buttons. Be sure to subscribe so you get new episodes as soon as they drop. Also join my e-newsletter list at dyanwilliams.com. As an e-newsletter subscriber, you get a part of my book, The Incrementalist, and the show notes in your inbox. You can buy the whole book at leanpub.com. Thank you for joining me and tune in again next time on The Incrementalist.

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