- Anxiety is a natural emotion that is meant to help us, according to neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki.
- You can't "turn off" anxiety but you can "turn down the volume" and harness it for good.
Neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki wants people to reconsider anxiety.
While it's important to learn how to "turn down" anxiety in an anxious modern world, Suzuki, a professor of neuroscience at New York University, said that anxiety is also a normal human emotion that is meant to help us.
In her book, Good Anxiety, Suzuki explores how we can harness anxiety to our own benefit.
She said that reorienting our thinking on anxiety can help make us more productive and empathetic.
Anxiety is a natural emotion that is difficult to mute completely
When you feel anxiety, Suzuki said, the sympathetic nervous system in your body is activated, raising your heart rate, increasing your breathing, and pulling blood away from your digestive and reproductive organs.
This response evolved to be a helpful way to deal with danger, she said, but when anxiety is ever-present it can damage your body. Long-term stress can increase your risk for heart disease, lead to conditions like depression, and cause reproductive issues, she said.
That's why exercise can help to "turn down the volume" on anxiety — releasing a burst of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins in your brain as a counter measure. Breathing work and meditation, meanwhile, help by activating the "relaxing" part of your nervous system, she said.
However, even for people with mild cases of anxiety, exercise and meditation may not banish those feelings entirely, she said. And increasing numbers of people have debilitating, clinical anxiety that may require treatment (in such cases, Suzuki recommends speaking to a doctor about treatment options).
How to harness 'good anxiety'
1. Match each worry with 1 action
Suzuki said one simple trick helps her to convert anxiety into something productive.
Make a list of things you feel worried about and come up with practical actions you can take to work towards resolving them. Just coming up with things you can do can feel satisfying, Suzuki said, because it brings our anxiety back to its evolutionary roots.
"Early on in our evolution, the response was either fight or run away, because it was typically a physical danger. It wasn't, 'Oh my God, the oceans are warming up. What am I going to do?'" she said. "So by putting an action on each one of those worries, you get back to that action-oriented resolution for your anxiety."
2. Knowing what anxiety feels like makes you empathetic
Suzuki said she's always been shy and, even though she liked school, she struggled with participating in class. When she became a professor, she said this anxiety gave her perspective on her students.
"I realized that that personal anxiety became a superpower for me, because what did I do? I came early, I stayed late, I made sure that I could answer as many of those unasked questions just by walking around," she said.
When we understand what it's like to experience anxiety about something, we can help people who share our worries, she said.
3. Take inspiration from others to reframe your fears
We feel anxious around the things we believe to be true, Suzuki said.
One way to reorient those beliefs is to think of your fear, and consider how other people in your life approach the same situation.
"Who are the students in the class that you admire most for what they do? Who are the teachers? Who are the leaders in your life? Who are the writers in your world that you admire the most? How do they tackle their projects and what is their mindset?" she said.
Suzuki said that this is not necessarily an easy thing to do, but it can be profound if you take it seriously — turning your anxiety into a tool towards becoming the person you want to be.