Dr Wendy Suzuki didn’t think she suffered from anxiety – at least not much. Until she started working on her latest book, Anxiety Is Your Superpower.
“I have learned that I have a lot more anxiety than I would like to admit. I discovered that I like to hide it from myself and everyone else, ”she says on the phone from New York.
Although she is not as shy as before, she suffers from social anxiety. “I’m always a little uncomfortable in social situations – not when I’m talking about work, but when I have to be myself for friends, or potential friends. And I have money worries. Am I spending too much? OMG Am I going to have enough? Family health is another anxiety. “My father passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. My mother is more and more forgetful. I’m a neuroscientist, I know what’s going on in the brain!
So it’s not just her personal anxieties that qualifies her to write a book titled Using Anxiety to Think Better, Feel Better, and Do Better. Suzuki is a professor of neural sciences and psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University and a renowned international authority on neuroplasticity and mental health. The book comes in time for World Mental Health Day this Sunday.
From a global pandemic to climate change, there is no doubt that the past 18 months have been stressful. Suzuki points out that, even before the pandemic, 90% of people in the United States had some degree of anxiety. Here, a paper published in the Irish Medical Journal reported that one in five of us had “significantly increased psychological distress – anxiety and depression” due to the combined effect of Covid-19 and the restrictions.
The words we use to describe how anxiety makes us feel – “over-excited,” “on edge,” “cramped” – tell their own story: Anxiety is not a very pleasant emotion. We want to get rid of it. But Suzuki isn’t “trying to drive anxiety out the door.” Anxiety originally evolved to help us, she says. “He warned us of the danger. If you were a woman with a baby 2.5 million years ago, the crack in a twig could be a predator. This triggered instant anxiety, which immediately deployed the fight-or-flight response – increasing heart rate, breathing and blood flow to the muscles, and your ability to run. Without this fast-acting system, you could be eaten.
Even today, anxiety still works to warn us – external threats continue to exist. “Living in New York, I regularly have to move away from oncoming traffic,” says Suzuki. Conflict, she says, comes with our modern society, in which we are locked into a never-ending cycle of stress, sleeplessness and worry. There is no respite – the anxiety does not go away when the predator danger or traffic threat is gone. “There are a lot of things that cause anxiety – your taxes are owed, there is other weird weather and you worry about global warming. The anxieties come constantly, so there is no recovery from them.
Yet if we approach anxiety as something to avoid / get rid of / alleviate, we are missing an opportunity to improve our lives, argues Suzuki, who believes anxiety is actually a key part of our ability to survive. optimally. She says she’s made it her mission to find wisdom in anxiety.
The book is not for those with clinical anxiety, which Suzuki says is a truly debilitating condition. “It prevents you from working, from having normal human relations. For this you need medical intervention. She wrote the book for those with lower anxiety levels. “It offers tools for turning down the volume of anxiety and for thinking about it in a different way – like a precious and protective emotion, an emotion that can help you in key situations in your life. It’s a big change in mentality. ”
But first we have to feel comfortable with the anxiety, sit down with it. “By just sitting down with the discomfort, you are doing two things. You get used to this feeling and realize that you can “survive” it. And you give yourself time and space in your brain to make a more conscious decision on how to act or respond. And, Suzuki says, when we are more consciously deciding how to react, we use our anxiety as a tool to overload our brains. “This is exactly how a new, more positive neural pathway is established.” So how does Suzuki suggest making anxiety work for us? It is a journey in three stages:
“Learn how to turn down the volume of anxiety. Recognize that you will never get rid of it. But you don’t want it too high.
One way to reduce nervousness is to breathe deeply and consciously for long periods of time. “It activates the part of the nervous system that handles stress, lowers the heart rate, lowers breathing, and diverts blood from muscles and our digestive system. Breathing is one of the oldest forms of meditation – and anyone can do it.
Another way to turn down the volume is to move your body. “The effects of physical activity on the brain have been studied for years in our labs at NYU. It stimulates the release of a wide range of neurochemicals in the brain, including dopamine and serotonin. Physical activity gives your body a nice bubble bath of neurochemicals. (Suzuki’s TED talk, “The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise,” reached over three million views: exa.mn/Brain-Gym)
Once anxiety stops being so exhausting in your daily life, turn inward and try to understand why you are having this uncomfortable feeling.
“What is behind it? What does this tell you about your value system? The sources of our anxiety are great pointers towards what we value in life. Maybe the concern for money reminds us how important we value financial stability – or the concern for privacy is a reminder that we need enough alone time. ”
Understand the gifts of anxiety – and what they can be for you. Suzuki devotes separate chapters to each of the six anxiety “superpowers”: resilience, fluidity, activist mindset, productivity, compassion and creativity.
She credits her own anxiety for giving her two of her favorite superpowers: productivity and empathy / compassion. A lawyer she interviewed said she was paid very well because of her anxiety. It struck a chord with Suzuki.
“For this lawyer, the anxiety came in the form of a ‘what if’ list – what if the other party had that argument. I had that too – what if I hadn’t done this job well enough.
The lawyer told her she turned her “what if” list into a “to do” – she took action instead of worrying and unsure. Suzuki began to do this more explicitly – taking his concerns into account. “And because the anxiety evolved to make us take action, by taking mental action, I decreased my anxiety and increased my productivity.”
Suzuki says his social anxiety gave him empathy. “I had years of classroom anxiety, being a shy, awkward wallflower of a student for years, who wanted to ask questions in class, but didn’t do so for fear of being wrong.”
Now a college professor, Suzuki realized that she was unconsciously reaching out to students as she had been. “I got to school early and left late. I wanted to make sure that students who were too afraid to ask questions in class had the opportunity to do so.
Suzuki says she now has a “deep and much more open relationship with anxiety.” Its goal is not only to get rid of it, but to learn from it. “He’s a friend, not a warm, woolly friend – a thorny friend, an informative friend.”
* Anxiety is your superpower, Wendy Suzuki, € 21.
* St Patrick’s Mental Health Services launched an interactive online program of wellness events, workshops and content, shared over four weeks, to encourage everyone to make their mental health a priority. priority and focus on their well-being. The program runs until October 24. Visit https://www.walkinmyshoes.ie/campaigns/wimslive.
Suzuki says we can actively choose to use anxiety as a catalyst for change, to reframe it from a problem to a lesson.
To do this means to develop a “militant mindset”. She mentions the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who has shown that it is possible to develop this type of growth mindset. It’s a four-step process:
- Learn to hear the voice of the fixed state of mind – the voice that says there is a limit to what you can accomplish in any situation.
- Consciously recognize that you have a choice: listen to this limiting belief in your own power – or listen to a growth-oriented voice, one that says you are in control of your own stress response.
- Actively respond to the negative, self-limiting voice with a positive, growth-oriented voice. Instead of ‘I’ll never get out of this. I can’t take it anymore ”, try“ It’s a pretty stressful situation, but I know it will pass. I can do x, y, or z, which I know will make me feel better and more grounded. Then I will be able to determine my next steps ”.
- Take action. It means knowing what to do. With this, you go along with the talk and take action knowing that an error / obstacle / stress reaction is simply information that informs your thoughts and actions.