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How to harness the power of anxiety

A new book by neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki claims that anxiety can improve quality of life

Anxiety can range from that butterflies-in-the-belly feeling before a test or interview to a full-blown disorder
Anxiety can range from that butterflies-in-the-belly feeling before a test or interview to a full-blown disorder (Unsplash)

Medha Nidhi is no stranger to anxiety; she has struggled with the emotion right from school. “I was a straight-A student, so getting a bad grade was stressful,” says the Bengaluru-based 23-year-old, who works with a theatre space in the city. “And I needed my teachers to always like me. So, if they thought badly of me, I’d be very sad,” recalls Nidhi, adding that her anxiety is usually linked to fears of being disliked or being inadequate at something. “I get anxious around people of authority, like my boss at work, because I want them to be impressed,” she says. Sometimes, she adds, the anxiety even stems from new friendships, she says, “because I am unsure about where my friendships stand, and I tend to jump to conclusions about their feelings for me.” 

Nidhi says therapy has helped her manage her anxiety better, addressing her underlying feelings and rationalising her thoughts. “I can now tell myself not to worry about things that aren’t too important to me. Or those I cannot control,” she says. It has also taught her something else: “I realise that anxiety can be a useful emotion. It is a way for my body to protect itself when it feels like it is in a threatening situation.” 

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For the most part, anxiety—which could range from that butterflies-in-the-belly feeling before a test or interview to a full-blown disorder—is seen as a highly negative emotional state, one that clouds judgment and impacts peace of mind. However, a new book by Dr Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at New York University, titled Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, claims that anxiety can actually improve your quality of life. “We tend to think about anxiety as negative because we associate it only with negative, uncomfortable feelings that leave us with a sense that we are out of control,” writes Dr Suzuki, who is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the New York University Center for Neural Science. However, she seems to believe that opening our minds to “a more objective, accurate and complete understanding of the underlying neurobiological processes” can help “create positive changes to the anxiety state itself.” 

So, what is this “good” anxiety? And how do we channelise the feeling, making it “a tool to supercharge our brains and bodies”, as Suzuki puts it, shifting from “living in a moderately functional way to functioning at a higher, more fulfilling level." 

Everyone has a baseline level of anxiety, agrees Aarti Karwayun, a Bengaluru-based certified expressive art therapist. “It helps in the daily functioning of an individual in a healthy manner,” says Karwayun. For instance, anxiety gets us out of bed in the morning, knowing that one has a schedule and needs to get things done. “A certain amount of anxiety is required to motivate us to do things,” says Karwayun.

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Anxiety also acts as a warning sign; the discomfort is an immediate alert of sorts. “It helps us anticipate threats in the environment,” says Dr Kamna Chhibber, who heads the department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, adding that anxiety helps you protect yourself. For instance, if you spend all night lying awake in bed, worrying about a relationship or job, it is probably an indication that it might be time to get out of it. 

Fear of consequences will also ensure that you do everything possible to rise to the occasion. For instance, it is anxiety that drives you to prepare for an exam or interview, points out Dr Sugami Ramesh, Senior Consultant, Clinical Psychology, Apollo Hospital, Bengaluru. “Some amount of anxiety is ok,” she says. Even desirable, believes Dr Santosh Bangar, Senior Consultant and Psychiatrist at Global Hospital, Parel, Mumbai, pointing out that anxiety could help boost performance. Anxiety, he points out, causes adrenaline, also called the fight or flight or stress hormone, to rush through your body, preparing it to take on a situation. “People who are in the limelight—media people, film stars, sportspeople—need anxiety to perform,” he says. 

Suzuki writes that general everyday anxiety can be managed, even channelled by what is known in academic circles as ‘neuroplasticity’—getting the brain to change and adapt to new situations. “We think about anxiety as negative because we associate it only with negative, uncomfortable feelings that leave us with the sense that we are out of control,” she writes. But, according to her, one can manage anxiety better by consciously intervening by making lifestyle changes—meditating, eating better and exercising to recalibrate “the neural pathways associated with anxiety.” She adds that her anxiety didn’t go away but “showed up differently because I was responding to stress in more positive ways.”

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So, how do I wrest back control when it comes to anxiety? It starts with awareness, believes Dr Ramesh. “The body will give you signals,” she says, adding that deep introspection is often needed to manage anxiety. “I tell my patients to write about how they feel; journaling helps you identify what you are going through,” she says. Awareness breeds acceptance, an important aspect of anxiety management. 

Also, therapy can help you do a cognitive reappraisal, which means a mental reframing of sorts — “changing negative thoughts to less negative ones”, as Dr Bangar puts it. Coping mechanisms, in general, vary from individual to individual, but he offers some blanket measures: channelling anxiety into hobbies, exercising for that endorphin release and better sleep, trying to bring in some structure to your day, eating well and ensuring that you spend quality time with family, friends or pets. 

Digital detoxes help too. “Incorporate activities that don’t have gadgets as part of your unwinding routine,” suggests Dr Chhibber. Also, any form of art helps, believes Karwayun. “Art can help externalise your feelings,” she says, adding that it is a great way to release creativity and come to a cathartic place. 

However, there is a difference between channelling everyday anxiety and dealing with more extreme conditions like generalised anxiety disorders (GAD), panic disorders, phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). “Anxiety becomes a problem when it begins interfering with daily life,” says Dr Chhibber. “If you have an anxiety issue, you have to seek treatment, and it is only through treatment you learn how to manage this,” she says. 

Nidhi’s therapy sessions, for instance, helped her realise her priorities. “I can now tell myself not to worry about things that aren’t too important to me or things I cannot control,” she says. Her immediate response to a stressful situation that gives her anxiety is to get away from it physically. “This is like a reflex almost,” she says. “I start walking and move to a different room or something; this helps because it forces you to look at something else,” she says. She says that, in general, she is a lot more mindful of her anxiety today and is, therefore, able to handle it much better. “Listening to the anxiety and helping my body is a way of self-care, I feel, “she says. 





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