The Fantastic Life

In Praise of Anxiety

Anxiety seems to be at an all-time high these days.  Over 100 million people in the U.S. will suffer from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime (almost one in three).  But, as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article below points out, feeling anxious is not always a problem — often the bigger problem is how we respond to anxiety.

Reframing the issue is critical.  If you are suffering from anxiety (or know someone who is), read the article below.  Here are three things I loved for my own life:

–Determine the source of your anxiety.  If you know what is causing your anxiety, you have a great start to creating an action plan.

–Reframe your issues. Taking an objective look and understanding your anxiety gives you the opportunity to rephrase and reframe it. For example, with athletes we say to change the phrasing “I have anxiety” to “I am excited.”

–Limit your time on social media and watching shows. These platforms have been shown again and again to create tremendous anxiety.

Get moving.  For me, this is critical. Move your body every single day.

Finally, I will add that having hope for the future is essential to battling anxiety.  Keep going.

Rule # 1 from my book  The Fantastic Life:  Know Your Story
Is anxiety one of your stories? How can you rewrite this story to move away from “I am an anxious person” to “I am a driven person” or “I am a passionate person”? The language we use to tell our stories plays a key role in shaping them.

In Praise of Anxiety

Rather than suppress this misunderstood emotion, we need to understand its essential evolutionary role in motivating us to action

By Tracy Dennis-Tiwary | Published on May 6, 2022


Nobody likes to feel anxious. Anxiety is among the most pervasive and reviled of human emotions. An entire industry has sprung up to aid us in eradicating it, from self-help books and holistic remedies to pharmaceuticals and cutting-edge cognitive behavioral therapy. Yet we are an ever more profoundly anxious society. Epidemiological studies show that over 100 million people in the U.S. will suffer from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Rates, especially among the young, have been rising for the past decade. Our efforts to contain anxiety aren’t working.

As a clinical psychologist and neuroscience researcher, I have devoted the past 20 years to understanding difficult emotions like anxiety, and I believe that we mental health professionals have made a terrible mistake. We’ve convinced people that anxiety is a dangerous affliction and that the solution is to eliminate it, as we do with other diseases. But feeling anxious isn’t the problem. The problem is that we don’t understand how to respond constructively to anxiety. That’s why it’s increasingly hard to know how to feel good.

This “bad” feeling isn’t a malfunction or failure of mental health. It’s a triumph of human evolution, a response that emerged along with one of our greatest attributes: the ability to think about the uncertain future and prepare for it. Anxiety places us in the “future tense” (pun intended)—a state in which we are motivated not only to survive but to thrive, by being more persistent, hopeful and innovative.

It was the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, and his intellectual heirs, such as psychologists Nico Frijda and Joseph Campos, who saw that unpleasant emotions like anxiety confer a profound evolutionary advantage. Emotions provide key information about our well-being and prepare us to act. Fear, for example, signals that you may be in danger—from a predator, bully or speeding car—and readies your body and mind to fight or take flight.

Treating anxiety like a disease prevents us from distinguishing between ordinary anxiety and anxiety disorders, which occur when our ways of coping with anxiety serve to amplify it.

Anxiety, by contrast, has nothing to do with present threats. Instead, it turns you into a mental time traveler, drawing your attention to what lies ahead. Will you succeed or fail in that interview for a job you desperately want? Anxiety prompts your mind and body into action. Your worries impel you to prepare meticulously for the interview, while your heart races and pumps blood to your brain so that you stay sharp and focused, primed to pursue your goals.

In a pair of studies published in the journal Emotion by Jeffrey Birk, myself and colleagues in 2011, we induced anxiety in young adults by asking them to vividly imagine being a passenger in a car accident and helping injured people in its aftermath. Compared with a second group who experienced a happy mood induction, the anxious group showed a greater ability to focus and control their attention during a computerized assessment.


Over the past decade, research has also shown something that many scientists didn’t expect: higher levels of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone, when we’re anxious. We have long known that dopamine spikes when an experience is pleasurable and also in anticipation of such rewards, activating brain areas that motivate and prepare us. The fact that anxiety also boosts dopamine levels points to its role in making positive possibilities into reality.

I reaped these benefits during one of the most difficult experiences of my life—when my infant son was diagnosed with a heart condition requiring open-heart surgery. It was anxiety that kept me going, even when I was running on empty. I worried and planned, read everything I could find on his condition, imagined all the possible outcomes, found the best doctors and persevered through every obstacle and sleepless night. Today, at 13 years old, he runs on the school track team and lives like he never had a heart condition.

Anxiety isn’t just useful in emergency situations. It also spurs us to be more creative in general. In a series of studies published in 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Carsten De Dreu and colleagues experimentally increased anxiety and other emotions (such as sadness, happiness and anger) through autobiographical writing about a past event. People induced to feel more anxious showed greater creative fluency during a problem-solving task, including the quantity and originality of their ideas and their ability to persist when obstacles arose. It takes effort and imagination to see future possibilities, and anxiety keeps us focused on them.

Many of us feel overwhelmed by chronic anxiety and don’t see any benefit from it. We have come to believe that the best way to cope is to treat anxiety like Covid-19 or cancer by trying to eradicate it. But treating anxiety like a disease is a recipe for its spiraling out of control; it prevents us from distinguishing between ordinary anxiety and anxiety disorders, which occur when our ways of coping with anxiety serve to amplify it in ways that are out of proportion to the situation and keep us from functioning in our professional and personal lives. When we say anxiety is a public health crisis, what we really mean is that the way we cope with anxiety is a public health crisis.

We need to develop a new mind-set about this misunderstood emotion. Reframing and reclaiming anxiety as an advantage and a valued part of being human isn’t easy or just a matter of willpower. It takes practice and time, and it doesn’t mean that anxiety becomes enjoyable. Anxiety can’t do its job unless it makes us uncomfortable, forcing us to sit up and pay attention. We don’t need to like anxiety—just to use it in the right way.

The first priority is to listen to yourself. Imagine you’ve been sitting with free-floating anxiety for a couple of days. You’ve been trying to ignore it—just keep calm and carry on—but it’s getting to you. So you decide to tune in to what your anxiety is telling you and go through a mental checklist. What’s been bothering me? Is it that fight I had with my husband? No, that got resolved. Is it that work deadline looming over me? No, that’s well enough in hand. Is it my acid reflux, which has gotten worse, giving me stomach pains for the past few days? Yes, that’s it.

Once you identify the source of your anxiety, you have useful information. And you now know what action to take. When you schedule that appointment with the doctor, your anxiety begins to lessen. You know you’re on the right track. When you see your doctor and get a plan to deal with the problem, the anxiety wanes. If you were to find out that there was something seriously wrong, anxiety would return, motivating you to take whatever additional steps were necessary to deal with the illness.

As this suggests, it’s no solution simply to evade the causes of anxiety. Consider new research on how parents help their children to deal with such problems. A parent’s natural response is to try to accommodate a child’s intense anxiety. The family of a child worried about flying in airplanes, for example, might limit vacations to drivable destinations. But even though this may comfort the child in the moment, it prevents them from learning to cope in the long run.

A new type of therapy called SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions), developed by Eli Lebowitz and colleagues at the Yale Child Study Center, teaches parents a better option—working through anxiety rather than avoiding it. Instead of allowing socially anxious children to stay home, for example, parents learn to gradually expose them to challenging situations and provide support. In a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Dr. Lebowitz and colleagues reported that 87% of the clinically anxious children showed less severe anxiety after their parents received the therapy.

This approach also applies to the problem of teen anxiety. By the time children in the U.S. turn 18, tens of millions of them will have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The blame is often placed on social media and the constant comparison with others that it encourages. But that’s too simplistic: A study by Erin Vogel and colleagues, published in 2015 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, showed that it was only teens who were already deeply invested in their social standing who had lower self-esteem and more anxiety after viewing acquaintances’ positive social media profiles.

The key factor in the debilitating anxiety of teens is whether they are spending inordinate amounts of time swiping and scrolling as a way to soothe and distract themselves. This tendency to reject and suppress unwanted feelings and thoughts only serves, paradoxically, to increase them in the long term. Teens and their parents need to see such avoidance for what it is, try to identify the underlying cause and find a way to channel it into relief. When they think of anxiety as an advantageous feeling that tells us what we care about, they can be better motivated to pursue the future they want, whether it’s joining the school newspaper, trying out for a team or saying hi to a new classmate.

It also helps to learn more about anxiety and how it works. In a pair of studies published in 2013 in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, Harvard researchers invited adults with social anxiety disorder, who live in dread of negative social evaluation, to take part in an experiment that was designed to feel distressing to them—giving a speech in front of a panel of judges. Half of the participants were taught to anticipate and interpret their responses—hearts racing, butterflies in their stomach, stumbling over words—as signs that they were energized and preparing to face the challenge ahead. They were further informed that anxiety evolved to help our ancestors survive and thrive by delivering blood and oxygen to muscles, organs and the brain, so that they work at peak capacity.

Those participants who learned to reframe their anxiety as an advantage, compared with those who didn’t, performed better under pressure, were more confident and showed biological signs—steadier heart rates, lower blood pressure—of being focused and engaged. The study showed that when we believe anxiety is a benefit rather than a burden, our bodies follow suit and better prepare us to meet the challenges ahead.


A similar effect comes from being in the presence of others, which can cause anxiety in some contexts but can also provide a pathway out. Research shows that receiving direct social support is one of the best ways to manage all types of distress, including anxiety. A 2006 study from the University of Wisconsin, for example, brought participants into the lab to take part in a high-anxiety situation: They entered a loud, claustrophobic MRI machine to have their brain scanned and were told to expect electrical shocks in the course of the procedure. One third of the group were allowed to hold the hand of a loved one, one third held the hand of a stranger, and the last third were left alone.

Researchers found that holding a loved one’s hand in particular calmed areas of the brain that are typically activated when people are highly anxious. Such social buffering should be no surprise. We’ve known for years that anxiety increases levels of the hormone oxytocin, which primes us to seek out more social support and connection. Humans evolved to rely on “emotional outsourcing,” turning to others when a challenge arises. Managing anxiety is no exception.

Finally, there are many ways to use anxiety to create a deeper sense of personal fulfillment. Beginning in 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running and most comprehensive longitudinal studies ever conducted, asked a fundamental question: What leads to a healthy and happy life? Following over 1,300 people from all walks of life over decades, the study has found that one of the best predictors—better than social class, IQ and genetic factors—is having a sense of purpose.

A sense of purpose doesn’t mean some grand vision or a burning life mission. Purpose refers to the values and priorities that make us who we are and give our life meaning. Research by Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues at Stanford shows that when people take time to express the purposes they hold dear and to contemplate why—whether it’s relationships, skills or even humor—their mood lifts, concentration and learning improve, relationships are more fulfilling, and physical health even gets a boost. A study published in 2014 in the Annual Review of Psychology by Dr. Cohen and colleagues showed that these benefits can persist for months or even years.

That’s why it’s crucial to channel the benefits of anxiety, like persistence and hope, toward purpose. The Canadian psychologist Patrick Gaudreau coined the term “excellencist” for people who strive toward excellence and savor having a purpose. They experience higher levels of anxiety than their less striving counterparts but don’t suffer the burdens of perfectionism—the relentless pursuit of flawlessness that leads to high rates of burnout.

In a pair of studies published in 2022 in the British Journal of Psychology, Dr. Gaudreau, Jean-Christophe Goulet-Pelletier and colleagues assessed divergent thinking, a key indicator of creativity, in hundreds of young adults by asking them to do such things as using common objects in novel ways. People who tended to pursue excellence over perfection in these exercises made mistakes, but they came up with more—and more original—answers. Thomas Edison wrote, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He was an excellencist, a master of turning anxiety over his failures into purpose.

Today we too often treat anxiety as a malfunction to repair, but anxiety doesn’t need fixing. What needs fixing is our disease model of dealing with it, which is meant to increase stability and destigmatize psychological struggle but is not succeeding and may even be causing harm. Once we rescue anxiety from this mindset, we’ll be in a better position to rescue ourselves.

—Dr. Dennis-Tiwary is professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Emotion Regulation Lab at Hunter College. This essay is adapted from her new book, “Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad),” published by Harper Wave, a division of HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).

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