A photo of Wendy Suzuki with a blue background.

Can’t Stop That Feeling

There’s no point in trying to completely eliminate anxiety from your life, says neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki. What you do with it, however, is another matter

By Lisa Armstrong

We all have some level of what NYU professor of neural science Wendy Suzuki calls everyday anxiety—even more so as we’re now in year three of a global pandemic. In her book Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion (Atria Books), Suzuki seeks to reduce the shame attached to feeling anxious, offers tips for managing anxiety (everything from watching funny TikTok videos to taking a walk), and shares ways that anxiety can be used to develop “superpowers.”

So, what is anxiety?
Anxiety is that feeling of fear and worry typically associated with unpredictable situations. Everybody experiences some sort of anxiety, because we’re designed to think and worry about the future. It’s part of our emotional wheelhouse.

How has the pandemic changed things, in terms of everyday anxiety?
One report before the pandemic suggested that 90 percent of the population experienced anxiety on a regular basis. I think it’s pretty safe to estimate that in this time of variant after variant, within the context of a global pandemic, anxiety levels have gone up. Lots of uncertainty. Lots of fear. Lots of worry.

Why did you write this book?
There’s a lot of shame associated with anxiety because it’s like, “There’s something wrong with my brain.” What I’m trying to do in the book is reduce the stigma and give people tools to calm the feeling of anxiety, because that physiological stress response that gets activated with anxiety is really such a
drain on our everyday energy. It is making us less productive, and making us less happy.

Where should people start when it comes to addressing anxiety?
There are two starter tools. One is deep breathing. The science behind that is twofold. One is that you’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system, the counterpart to the “fight or flight” part of the nervous system. Deep breathing is also one of the oldest forms of meditation. I recommend box breathing, which is inhaling for four counts, holding at the top for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding at the bottom for four counts. My second tool is something I’ve studied in my lab, which is the effects of moving your body on the brain’s physiology and function. Every single time you move your body, you’re releasing what I like to call a neurochemical bubble bath, full of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. All of these decrease anxiety levels and increase positive mood states. So that is the science behind why going for a walk can make you feel better.

A photo of Wendy Suzuki wearing a white lab coat while discussing a model of the human brain

Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki will become dean of the College of Arts and Science in September.

You say you learned to use anxiety, and that others can use theirs, to develop “superpowers.” How so?
I’ve always had social anxiety. As a student, I was terrified of asking questions in class, terrified that the teacher was going to say, “Oh, what a stupid question.” And that’s turned into one of my biggest superpowers—empathy as a teacher. There are many students that feel exactly like me. I’m not going to call them out and just say go ahead and ask the question. I’m going to be available before or after class because it’s easier to ask me directly rather than to have to share your question with everybody. I was doing that unconsciously, but then when I started writing this book, I realized, “Oh, that is one of my superpowers.” You have this power to reach out, recognize that anxiety in somebody else, and help them. And that is a beautiful gift to have.

Should we be trying to get rid of anxiety altogether?
Am I saying read this book and you’ll get rid of all anxiety? No. Evolutionarily, anxiety was a warning system—pay attention to that lion that may be around the corner waiting to eat you. There are definitely things we should be anxious about. Part of deactivating the warning system is doing something about it. That’s another superpower in the book—the tool of productivity that comes from your anxiety. Many people have anxiety around things they have to do. Should I be thinking about this article that I have to write for an important science journal? Absolutely. But should this be keeping me up until 3:00 a.m.? I turn all that worry into a to-do list. Then when I do each thing, I’m going to put a checkmark next to it, and checking off helps me with that evolutionary anxiety.

Are some people better equipped to deal with anxiety than others?
The people that tend to have a little bit of a head start are people that have already practiced positive psychology. Having a positive outlook is very powerful. If you don’t have as much experience with that, it is absolutely learnable. That becomes a superpower, because those with lots of anxiety have lots of practice thinking up other ways to approach that worry and reframing in a way that can be very advantageous.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
My wish is that they learn how to turn the volume down on their anxiety and lean into these uncomfortable emotions to learn how to develop superpowers. My hope is that in the end, the book will help them live a more fulfilling, more creative, and overall less stressful life.

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