Dr. Wendy Suzuki’s book came out last year amidst all the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the changes sparked by this ongoing crisis. In Good Anxiety, Dr. Suzuki shares how to harness anxiety and channel it to help us solve problems and fortify our well-being.
Read the Q&A with Wendy Suzuki below.
WAM: Why did you decide to focus on and study the effects of anxiety?
Dr. Suzuki: I actually finished writing the first draft of Good Anxiety before the pandemic started. I was drawn to the topic of anxiety for the simple reason that I started to notice higher levels of anxiety all around me: in my NYU students, in my friends, in my colleagues and in myself. When I looked into the studies on anxiety levels at that time, I found a truly astounding 90% of Americans reported having feelings of anxiety. This statistic floored me and convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was the perfect topic for my next book.
WAM: You describe anxiety as the most misunderstood emotion. What value is there in exploring the uncomfortable feelings that make up anxiety?
Dr. Suzuki: I think anxiety is the most misunderstood emotion because most of us just want to kick it out the door and never feel all those uncomfortable emotions that come with anxiety ever again. But in reality, those uncomfortable emotions are there for a very good reason. They are there to warn us of potential dangers, risks or conflicts and in so doing, help reveal our deepest values. This might include identifying what is lacking in our lives (Relaxation time? Social time? Time to move our bodies) or what might be over-represented in our lives (Screen time? Newsfeeds? Toxic relationships?). From an evolutionary perspective, the purpose of anxiety and its underlying physiological stress response is to protect us from threats in our environment. Now the volume of our collective anxiety is turned up too high and it has lost much of its protective power. But, as I describe in the book, we can start to take back that protective power of anxiety by first learning to turn down the overall volume of anxiety in our lives.
WAM: What are some of the warning signs for what you call “bad anxiety” and what steps can people take to turn it into good anxiety
Dr. Suzuki: The first step to turning bad anxiety into good is to turn down the volume on your anxiety. My top 2 tips on turning down the volume of anxiety are:
1. Deep, slow breathing. This works because it activates the natural stress reduction part of our nervous system, also called the parasympathetic nervous system that not only slows breath, but also slows the heart rate and shunts blood from the muscles to the digestive and reproductive organs. I recommend “boxed” breathing which is: inhaling on a 4-count, holding at the top for a 4-count, exhaling on a 4-count and holding at the bottom for a 4-count. This will not only start to activate your parasympathetic stress-reduction system, but you can use it almost anywhere (during a conversation, during a meeting) and no one will even know you are feeling anxious!
2. Move your body. Many years of research in my lab at NYU support the idea that every time your move your body, you are giving your brain a wonderful bubble bath of neurochemicals that include neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and noradrenalin. Higher levels of these neurotransmitters in your brain decrease anxiety that makes exercise a powerful tool to address your most common sources of anxiety.
WAM: In your book, you say it is important to understand that anxiety is dynamic and changeable. In what way?
Dr. Suzuki: Our anxiety is dynamic and changeable because our brains are dynamic and changeable. This ability of our brains to adapt and change to the external environment is called brain plasticity and understanding how brain plasticity works in different situations has been the topic of my research effort since I started my neuroscience research career. In fact, even if our collective levels of anxiety may have gone from bad to worse since the start of the pandemic, I am optimistic that all my readers will be able to both learn about and apply the approaches that I discuss in Good Anxiety to first turn the volume down on our anxiety and then reap the benefits of this protective emotion in our lives because of their brain’s inherent plasticity.
WAM: Did you learn something about your own relationship with anxiety in writing this book, and if so, what?
Dr. Suzuki: The most surprising thing that I discovered while writing this book is that I found myself making friends with my own anxiety. Now my new friend was more prickly than warm and fuzzy, but as I started to turn inward on my own forms of anxiety, some of which have been with me most of my life, I experienced exactly what I talk about in the book. I started to realize what my anxiety was telling me about myself. For example, one of my most long-standing anxieties is a form of social anxiety that comes from being a very shy, awkward, wall-flower of a young person that continued in full force all the way through my early years of college. I’ve always been shy and awkward in social situations but when I started to think about this particular anxiety, I also realized that while I’ve always had a difficult time in new social situations, in fact my friendships and social connections are what kept me healthy and sane during the pandemic. I know that I will probably always have those feelings of discomfort in social situations with new people, but the importance of strong social connections on my own mental health (something that really came into focus as I finished editing this book during the pandemic) gives me a new insight on why will continue to work on this old anxiety of mine. So my take-home insight from writing this book is this: If you take the time to turn down the volume on your anxiety and start to embrace all the information it can teach us about ourselves, it will ultimately lead you down a path to a more fulfilling, more joyful and less stressful life. That is my hope for all the readers of Good Anxiety.
You can purchase Wendy Suzuki’s book, Good Anxiety here.