A new book argues that anxiety is good for you, even though it feels bad
Anxiety is an unpleasant emotion, but can it be useful? NPR's A Martinez talks to clinical psychologist and author Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who calls anxiety a triumph of human evolution.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
More than 100 million people in the U.S. will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Anxiety is one of the most common and unpleasant mental health conditions on the planet. But maybe - maybe, just maybe - it's gotten a bad rap. That's the gist of a new book called "Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You Even Though It Feels Bad." And it's written by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. The clinical psychologist joins me now to talk about why anxiety may actually be useful. Welcome.
TRACY DENNIS-TIWARY: Thank you. Great to be with you.
MARTINEZ: All right. There's an entire industry dedicated to getting rid of anxiety. Around 10 million Americans take anti-anxiety medication. But research shows anxiety is only becoming more common. So tell us, what are we all doing wrong here?
DENNIS-TIWARY: Well, this is the mystery because we have great treatments. We have growing awareness. We have de-stigmatization. And we're having a lot of great conversations about mental health. But here we are with these tools and, as you say, anxiety continues to be on the rise. And I feel one of the key problems is that we mental health professionals have made some terrible mistakes in how we communicate about, in particular, anxiety and anxiety disorders. We've really spread a couple false beliefs about anxiety. One is that any experience of anxiety is somehow dangerous or a disease, which means we should protect ourselves from it, avoid it, eradicate it like we would cancer or COVID. And then the second fallacy, really, is that somehow, anxiety is a failure, a failure of happiness, of mental health.
And the problem with these beliefs about anxiety is that they - not only are they incorrect on many levels, but they're also driving us to do many of the more unhelpful things when it comes to coping with anxiety, things like avoiding anxiety, suppressing it, fearing our anxiety. And really, this is a huge opportunity cost because when we do those things, we have fewer opportunities to actually learn to work with anxiety, to cope. And these kinds of avoidance and suppression approaches can actually spiral anxiety even further out of control.
MARTINEZ: In your book, you write that there is a big difference between anxiety and anxiety disorder. So how do we know when we're feeling normal anxiety versus something, say, more debilitating?
DENNIS-TIWARY: Anxiety is on a spectrum. It's more of a dimmer switch than a light switch, you know, that you flick on and off. So you know, anxiety is experienced from just excitement, a sort of sense of butterflies in your stomach, all the way over to panic. But even frequent and intense experiences of anxiety are not enough to diagnose an anxiety disorder. We only diagnose them when the ways that we cope with anxiety are actually getting in the way of living a full life. So I might feel socially anxious. I might feel anxious about having an interview with a wonderful journalist. And I can feel all those feelings. But if I'm starting to cope with that nervousness in ways that cause me to refuse to do the interview, that cause me not to leave my home, that cause me not to be able to go to work or be with loved ones, it's those coping approaches that are getting in my way that would lead to a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.
MARTINEZ: How similar is all of this to, say, physical training, when an athlete recognizes the difference between the discomfort of pushing your body to the limits or recognizing the pain of an actual injury?
DENNIS-TIWARY: I love that metaphor, to compare mental health with physical health, because if we stopped thinking of all mental illness or mental challenges like anxiety as a disease and instead thought of them as health, as a positive state like fitness to work towards, we do a few really important things differently. First of all, we'd know that it wasn't black and white, that you either have mental health or mental illness and you'd be working towards this positive goal. You'd engage in the stress and strain sometimes of tolerating some of these uncomfortable experiences, knowing that you're not vulnerable, that you're actually not fragile, you're not going to break into a million pieces, you're antifragile. I think we'd also realize that prevention is key. So rather than wait until we've reached some sort of a debilitating experience of emotional distress, we would actually get in front of it. We'd say, hey, I'm experiencing anxiety right now, I'm experiencing these difficult emotions, what are these emotions telling me? How can I work with them? How can I get support when I need it so that then it becomes a positive, active pursuit of mental health?
MARTINEZ: Are you saying that anxiety is a good thing?
DENNIS-TIWARY: Anxiety is a good thing, even though it feels bad. Anxiety is a double-edged sword, like all of our difficult emotions. And the problem is that we've taught ourselves to fear and revile and suppress all feelings of emotional discomfort. And it's an opportunity cost because they're meant to be there to give us information. Emotions like anxiety tell us that there's something going on in the world.
MARTINEZ: Has there been a time in your life when you felt maybe anxiety was helping you get through something, accomplish a goal?
DENNIS-TIWARY: One of the most anxiety-provoking experiences of my life is when we discovered that my son, my first born, was born with a congenital heart condition which would require open heart surgery when he was an infant. When we knew this, it was really anxiety that allowed me to function. It kept me hopeful that there was a future. I understood that something bad could happen. But I really believed that if I worked hard enough that that good outcome that the doctors told me about was also possible. So it kept me focused, energized. The worry that I had, it wasn't easy. But it kept me, really, working hard to get him the best treatment, the best follow-up care. And, I think, in many ways, if I hadn't had that anxiety, I might have fallen prey to despair.
MARTINEZ: You know, I think, as time goes on, I think we're trying to perfect ourselves as humans. We try our best to take the bad stuff away and put our best face forward. But I guess what you're saying is that there are certain parts about us, even though they don't seem perfect, that we should learn to embrace and just realize that that is who we are.
DENNIS-TIWARY: I agree with you so much to say that we're holding ourselves to this very toxic standard of positivity. And it's not working. It's clearly not working. That's why we can have these great treatments and solutions out there and, still, anxiety disorders and mental health problems are on the rise. I think the more that we - and, you know, embrace is sort of a fluffy word, but I think just acknowledge the reality of the messiness of being human and to realize that that's not vulnerability, that's actually a huge source of strength. It's like a wave. It's - you know, when we think about our difficult emotions, they are these waves that drive our lives. And you can drown in a wave, but you can also ride it forward. You can also surf it, you know? And - but it takes actual belief that we can do it and actually building skills and actually building habits and believing that that's possible.
MARTINEZ: That's Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. Her new book is called "Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You Even Though It Feels Bad." Thanks.
DENNIS-TIWARY: Thank you so much.
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