There is an intriguing and, I think, truly important essay by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary who has devoted the past 20 years to understanding difficult emotions like anxiety. She is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and has a new book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad). It is so refreshing to hear a psychologist discuss psychological issues in a common sense, non-medical way. Let me share a few examples from her essay, “In Praise of Anxiety”:
We need to develop a new mind-set about this misunderstood emotion. Reframing and reclaiming anxiety as an advantage and a valued part of being human isn’t easy or just a matter of willpower. It takes practice and time, and it doesn’t mean that anxiety becomes enjoyable. Anxiety can’t do its job unless it makes us uncomfortable, forcing us to sit up and pay attention. We don’t need to like anxiety—just to use it in the right way.
She then outlines a process by which we can productively use anxiety, advising that we work through the emotion rather than avoid it.
Using the example of teens who spend “inordinate amounts of time swiping and scrolling as a way to soothe and distract themselves” from their anxieties, Dennis-Tiwary writes:
This tendency to reject and suppress unwanted feelings and thoughts only serves, paradoxically, to increase them in the long term. Teens and their parents need to see such avoidance for what it is, try to identify the underlying cause and find a way to channel it into relief. When they think of anxiety as an advantageous feeling that tells us what we care about, they can be better motivated to pursue the future they want, whether it’s joining the school newspaper, trying out for a team or saying hi to a new classmate.
Later in the essay she writes that “there are many ways to use anxiety to create a deeper sense of personal fulfillment” and recommends that we channel its benefits toward purpose, “to the values and priorities that make us who we are and give our life meaning.”
Today we too often treat anxiety as a malfunction to repair, but anxiety doesn’t need fixing. What needs fixing is our disease model of dealing with it, which is meant to increase stability and destigmatize psychological struggle but is not succeeding and may even be causing harm. Once we rescue anxiety from this mindset, we’ll be in a better position to rescue ourselves.
Carl B. Barney
May 12, 2022