Understanding anxiety —and its surprising upside

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“The thing about anxiety is that it’s a placeholder for emotional discomfort, this nervous feeling that we get when we anticipate the uncertain future, what's around the bend and hasn't happened yet” says Tracy Dennis Tiwary. Photo by Negative Space.

Approximately one-third of all Americans, including young people and children, are struggling with anxiety or suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issues in the US. In the first year of the pandemic, the World Health Organization [WHO] estimated a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide and urged all countries to pay more attention to mental health.

The familiar ways of coping with anxiety, like avoidance and anti-anxiety medication, seem to be amplifying the problem. Over the last 15 years, prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications have quadrupled, particularly amongst those under 25. 

Has the desire to control and avoid anxiety made the problem worse? Is anxiety the problem, or are over zealous attempts to inoculate ourselves against the emotion of anxiety making us more fragile and amplifying the problem? Is there a right way to be anxious? 

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In her latest book, “Future Tense; Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad),” Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Emotion Regulation Lab at Hunter College, unpacks the evolutionary origins of anxiety, the right way to live with it, and why avoidance isn’t the solution. 

Dennis-Tiwary says that “the problem with an anxiety disorder is not that you have too much anxiety, it's that the way that we are coping with anxiety, which tends to involve avoidance and suppression, is getting in the way of us being able to live our lives.” 

“We've started to equate mental health with an absence of all emotional discomfort,” says Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. “We feel that unless we're happy all the time and optimized for everything all the time like a robot, we are failing in mental health.” Photo by Jenny Anderson. Book cover Future Tense; Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad),

Physiologically, according to Dennis-Tiwary, anxiety has some positive effects. 

“[It] increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brain, and dopamine actually primes us to work towards positive goals,” she says. “It also increases levels of the social bonding hormone oxytocin, which primes us to seek out social support and social connection.”  

Anxiety, Dennis-Tiwary says, “helps us seek out support that helps us manage anxiety in the moment and draw on our social capital, our social resources, and makes us more persistent. It makes us more innovative and in moderately high doses makes us more creative.” 

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Dennis-Tiwary explains that a better understanding of anxiety would help us distinguish between ordinary anxiety and anxiety disorders.  Feeling anxious is less problematic than understanding how to constructively respond to the emotion. 

“If you think of anxiety as a wave sometimes that drowns us, sometimes we get pushed down, our faces against the sand,” she says. “But we can also get back up and we can learn to swim and we can build skills to handle those waves.”

Dennis-Tiwary says there are many tools at our disposal for dealing with anxiety, but stresses “knowing when we need that extra support, remembering at the same time that mental health is not the absence of emotional discomfort.”

Later, Dennis-Tiwary discusses the spike in anxiety among children. Parents today are more engaged in their children’s lives, and their natural instinct when we seeing their child worried or facing struggles at school is to “remove all of that discomfort and get them feeling better.” 

 Yesterday’s helicopter parents have been replaced by snowplow parents, who try to remove all obstacles in the way of their child’s success or happiness.  

“The problem there is that it's a huge opportunity cost when it comes to our children developing true emotional intelligence and emotional grit,” Dennis-Tiwary explains. “If we never allow our children to struggle with negative emotions, to feel bad sometimes, they will not gain the skills to learn how to feel good.”   

Rather than fear that anxiety will break them, or that they can't survive it or work through it, she says, we should view kids are anti-fragile and strong.

“If we help them work through anxiety, that will be the best support we can give to our child and our children,” she says.

Tiwary also offers a perspective on safe spaces, suggesting that they may be “counterproductive … as if we've created this ideal that safety from emotional discomfort is a human right, but actually the opposite is true.”




Andrea Brody