Don’t Fear Your Anxiety, Take Advantage of It, Advises Professor Dennis-Tiwary

Professor Tracy Dennis-Tiwary (Photo courtesy of Dennis-Tiwary)

Professor Tracy Dennis-Tiwary (GC/Hunter, Psychology) has spent her career studying factors in the development of emotion regulation, as well as the neurocognitive processes underlying novel treatments for anxiety, stress, and addiction. She is the director of the Hunter College Health Technology Center and the Stress, Anxiety, and Resilience Research Center, both based at Hunter. 

Dennis-Tiwary is currently working on her forthcoming book for Harper Wave, Future Tense: Making Anxiety Our Superpower. She recently shared some of its lessons in a conversation with The Graduate Center:

The Graduate Center: Anxiety is usually seen as a negative emotion. How can it be useful?

Dennis-Tiwary: Anxiety is a normal human emotion, and is not the same as an anxiety disorder, which is a medical condition. As an emotion, anxiety is fearful apprehension about the uncertain future. It’s the feeling we get when there is a possible threat around the corner, but it hasn’t happened yet. That’s why worry goes along with anxiety. Anxiety prepares our minds and bodies for potential danger: We think in ways that are more focused, detail-oriented, and goal-oriented so that we can snap into action if needed. Anxiety is uncomfortable both because of that uncertainty and because it signals a potential discrepancy between where we are now and where we hope to be. But also in that space between the present and the uncertain future are things like hope, ambition, and drive. So, when we engage with our anxiety, we can also engage with hope, as long as we don’t shy away from or avoid these feelings — avoiding anxiety is actually the quickest way to accelerate it. 

Another benefit is that when we engage with the discomfort of anxiety, it’s much less likely to overwhelm us. When we experience it, we can learn to cope and work with it. We may even discover that our anxiety in the right amounts can energize us to work harder, focus more, and have bigger dreams. But all of that is very dependent on our ability to see our anxiety not as a disease that will overwhelm us, or as a sign that we’re psychologically broken, but to see it for what it is: an evolutionarily tuned emotion that energizes us to anticipate and plan for the future. 

If we believe that anxiety is not something to be frightened of and that we have the ability to handle it, then the chances are we will be able to do so.

GC: How is anxiety different from stress? Is stress useful as well?

Dennis-Tiwary: Unlike anxiety, stress doesn’t place us in a future orientation. Stress is about the balance between the challenges we face in the moment and the resources we have to cope with those challenges. When we have too many challenges and too few resources, stress can become overwhelming and can have a negative impact on both our psychological and physical well-being. This can cause or exacerbate anxiety, so the two are linked.

There is beneficial stress, or eustress (a word that uses the Greek prefix eu-, meaning good). If there’s a good balance between the challenge we face and the energy we have to deal with it, stress allows us to marshal our internal resources, get our adrenaline pumping, and deal with what’s ahead. Like our perspective about anxiety, when we believe we have what it takes to cope with stressor and challenges, we are much more likely to experience eustress rather than bad stress. 

GC: What do you advise people whose anxiety or stress feels too high, particularly because of the pandemic and its side effects, like isolation and a need to check the news all of the time?

Dennis-Tiwary: We are all affected by the COVID-19 health crisis. We feel stress and anxiety for very good reasons. We should not ignore those feelings or minimize people’s suffering. But if we shift our attitude toward anxiety, we can better control it. 

Anxiety and depression are particularly on the rise during the pandemic. Anxiety because we have this looming, uncertain threat, and we’re not sure how or if we will be able to cope with it. These factors are a recipe for anxiety. At the same time, we’re isolated, many of us have experienced personal and financial loss, and some of us may started to feel hopeless. These factors are a recipe for depression. We’re struggling with all these complex feelings. For those who were struggling with these feelings before, it’s even more challenging. 

For stress relief, you can do all the things that we all should do: Get out and take walks as conditions permit and while practicing social distancing, get exercise however we can, practice mindfulness, prayer, breathing, yoga, or whatever personal practices work for us.

I also advise checking the news in mindful ways – constantly checking each new COVID statistic or getting on the treadmill of the 24-hour news cycle is not only exhausting, but will contribute to unhealthy anxiety. Instead, devote an ample window of time once or twice a day for in-depth understanding from reliable and balanced sources. Cultivate deep rather than superficial knowledge, because this prevents over- or underestimating threat and helps us make the best choices possible in a difficult time.  

But if we do those things and still avoid our feelings of anxiety and stress and refuse to engage with them, those feelings are going to accelerate. 

Researchers have conducted experiments with anxious people: asking them to reframe their anxiety as beneficial for effective action. People who did the reframing not only felt less stressed, but exhibited fewer biological signs of stress [compared with those who didn’t do the reframing]. Their blood vessels constricted less, and their heart-rate efficiency was better. Their bodies did better, just because they had a brief reframe of how anxiety could benefit and motivate them in positive ways.

Anxiety is not an easy emotion, but if we can think of anxiety not as an enemy, but as something we can tune into and use, then it becomes our ally.

GC: How are you coping with the pandemic?

Dennis-Tiwary: The isolation is what’s getting to me, even though I’m lucky enough to be with my family. When we’re more isolated and lonely, it’s definitely a trigger for depression and anxiety. But within the problem lies the solution. We can think about how to prioritize connection in whatever way we can. Every day, thinking: How can we be connected in ways that help us? How can we create experiences of connection that help reduce stress?

One thing I’ve done is to start new routines with my loved ones. My sister and I have never been big phone people. But every week, we have a catch-up call, and it’s been amazing. All week, I look forward to it. It reduces those feelings of worry and hopelessness. If we prioritize connections, it opens up wonderful possibilities. 

Submitted on: APR 9, 2020

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