Tune In to Your Anxiety: Those ‘Bad’ Feelings Are There to Help You

Tracy Dennis-Tiwary 

Anxiety often feels terrible, but in fact those feelings are the result of an evolutionary advantage. That is the perspective-changing argument made by Professor Tracy Dennis-Tiwary (GC/Hunter, Psychology), the director of the Stress, Anxiety, and Resilience Research Center and the Interdisciplinary Center for Health Technology and Wellness.

Dennis-Tiwary has written widely on the topic of anxiety, and she’s currently working on her forthcoming book: Future Tense: Making Anxiety Our Superpower. In this third contribution to our series, she explains why running from anxiety isn’t helpful and offers ideas for how you can use it to your benefit: 

In our age of divisive politics, a global pandemic, and ecological crises, many of us suppress our anxiety in an attempt to keep calm and carry on. This reflects the disease story of anxiety — that it should be prevented, avoided, and stamped out at all costs. But chronically avoiding anxiety is the surest way to amplify it because we lose opportunities to strengthen our coping skills, and soon forget that anxiety is not always debilitating. Indeed, anxiety is an evolutionary advantage.

This is because anxiety would not exist without one of the great achievements of human evolution — projecting ourselves into the imagined future. Anxiety is the signal that the future is uncertain, and primes us to marshal our resources to cope with this uncertainty: We are more focused and goal-oriented so that we can snap into action if needed. Anxiety is the ‘tummy test’ telling us what to be wary of and what to hope for.

Therefore, during anxiety-provoking times, we should tune into our feelings of anxiety. When we accept and explore our anxieties, we can start to learn from and work with them, rather than feel overwhelmed. Engage in wellness practices that promote mental and physical openness: Take walks in nature, exercise or do yoga, practice mindfulness or prayer. Social connection is one of the great disrupters of problematic anxiety — finding connection with those we care about, or causes that inspire us, helps focus us on what really matters. Checking the news in mindful ways can also help — doomscrolling or getting on the treadmill of the 24-hour news cycle is not only exhausting, but will contribute to unhealthy anxiety. Instead, devote planned, limited windows of time to learn from reliable sources.  

Anxiety is not an easy emotion, but if we challenge the disease view of anxiety, we will be better able to engage it, manage it, and use it to our benefit in troubling times. We might even start to think of anxiety not as an enemy, but as an ally.

Submitted on: OCT 20, 2020

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