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September 21, 2021 - Anxiety gets a pretty bad rap. It can be anything from mildly uncomfortable to downright paralyzing. Why in the world do we even need anxiety? Dr. Wendy Suzuki, neuroscientist at New York University, tells us why we need it!
According to Dr. Wendy Suzuki, anxiety has an evolutionary purpose. It’s designed to protect us and is essential for our survival. If you were a cave mama out collecting berries with your baby, anxiety would keep you alive if there were a threat nearby. Unfortunately, today, there are so many triggers of anxiety that our general levels have gone up across the board. Pre-pandemic, 90 percent of Americans identified as experiencing some anxiety. Post-pandemic, that percentage is even higher.
Our current sources today are familiar and ubiquitous:
The UK hired a Minister of Loneliness to address specifically the problem of isolation because it had become so widespread. Unless you live in a cave, it’s hard to escape these sources. Dr. Suzuki, though, pored through the research to help us all find a way out.
First, let’s define the word. Anxiety is the feeling of fear or worry associated with uncertainty in your life. Dr. Suzuki called her book Good Anxiety because she discovered how useful and valuable this rejected emotion is. Without it, we wouldn’t have a good signal to tell us that something was amiss. When the level of anxiety gets too high, though, it loses its protective quality and become destructive. We need this feeling of fear when we encounter dangerous or threatening situations because it moves us to take action to escape the problem. However, when it gets too loud, it can paralyze us.
When the volume of the anxiety gets too high, we need to learn how to turn it down. In her book, Dr. Suzuki covers multiple ways to do this. Here are her two favorites:
Stress reduction comes from the parasympathetic part of your nervous system. This decreases your heart rate, respiration rate, and sends blood to your gut for digestion. This is why this state is often called the “rest and digest” state. How do we activate this? The best way to activate this system is to breathe deeply and fully by using a four-count box breath where you breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds. And repeat.
Move your body. Go for a walk, walk around the table if you can’t get out of your house. This fills your brain with a bubble bath of neurochemicals including dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline, which help calm your nervous system.
Because anxiety needs action as an antidote, walking helps. Even if you’re just walking around the block, your brain feels like you’re getting away from something. Also, instead of worrying about “what if” something bad might happen, create a “to do” list. This mobilizes your mind into the feeling of taking action – even if that action is tomorrow.
Now that you’ve learned some ways to turn the volume down, you’re able to look at your anxiety with a clear head. Remember, these uncomfortable feelings are here to tell you something. When you can look in and see what your anxiety is telling you about what’s going on in your life, that’s valuable and can help you to determine how to take action.
Unfortunately, you can’t go from bad anxiety to good anxiety without acknowledging it, taking the breaths or doing the walking to calm down but once you do, you can truly start to benefit from your anxiety.
According to Dr. Suzuki, one of the most valuable gifts of her anxiety has been empathy. When she was a child, she was so anxious in class that she could never raise her hand to participate. Now that she’s a university professor, she goes out of her way to talk to the more introverted students who may also be too afraid to speak up.
So make friends with your anxiety and it will be a somewhat prickly friend who sincerely wants to protect you. Ultimately, this prickly voice will bring you to a life that’s more fulfilling, more creative and less stressful in the end when you can help her calm down and then listen to her.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki will be joining Friends of Six Senses on Tuesday October 12 at 9:00 am New York / 2:00 pm London on Instagram Live @SixSenses.