LET'S REMINISCE: Good anxiety

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

Eighteen percent of the American population—40 million people— suffer from one of several clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders. These official statistics don’t include the millions of people who, according to Wendy Suzuki, the author of a new book entitled “Good Anxiety,” deal with “everyday anxiety,” defined as non-clinical yet persistently draining anxiety.

A glance at the headlines underscores the mood. Worries about work, health, money, education—a daunting “what-if” list that seems to spiral further each day.

“Like a noxious odor we’ve grown used to,” writes Ms. Suzuki, “anxiety has become a constant condition.” But in her book she offers some counterintuitive good news: It’s possible to use our feelings of anxiety and channel them into a force for good.

At its core, anxiety is an arousal and activation of both the brain and body when one encounters negative stimuli or stress. The amygdala, a structure deep in the brain, responds to perceived threats and sets off a chain of events in the nervous system that results in the famous “fight or flight” response.

Because the body does not differentiate between real and imagined stressors, its response mechanisms can be provoked unintentionally—leaving the brain rattled. Ms. Suzuki doesn’t define “bad anxiety” so much as give familiar examples: chronic worry, distraction, physical and emotional discomfort and the feeling that we have no control over what’s pushing our buttons.

Drawing on neurobiology, however, Ms. Suzuki argues that our brain has evolved the tools to turn anxieties to our benefit: “Like a sailboat needs wind in order to move, the brain needs an outside force to urge it to grow, adapt and not die.” Her book is especially effective in arguing that anxiety shouldn’t be something we seek to hide, numb or even fix.

Instead we can use it as a form of energy, thanks to the power of brain plasticity, our ability to rewire this potentially destructive response. It’s what enables us to learn how to calm down, reassess situations and reframe our thoughts and feelings.

“Anxiety is changeable, adaptable like any other feature of our brain,” Ms. Suzuki argues. The promise of her book is a better understanding of how anxiety works in the brain and body so that we can learn how to adjust our own misfiring. Anxiety can even give us hidden superpowers.

Resilience, for example, is learned through dealing with stress, helping us rebound and refocus after difficult, challenging events. Even bigger payoffs come by adopting what Ms. Suzuki calls an “activist mindset”—the belief that we can reframe our thoughts in a positive way. This gives us control over how we react to situations.

Ms. Suzuki illustrates these points with the story of her experience of anxiety-laden grief after the sudden death of her brother, an event that brought on deep sadness and left her shocked at how devastating trauma actually could be. But she credits this dark time for her renewed sense of her own strength—aided by daily meditation in the wake of loss.

Our struggles with anxiety can also help build our compassion for others struggling in the same way. This book departs from the limited horizons of self-help and connects with bigger issues in its call to take responsibility for ourselves and to help others: The sources of our anxiety are great pointers toward what we value in life.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.