Author Talks: Make anxiety your ally

How can we reclaim our relationship with anxiety, so it works for, and not against, us?

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Daniella Seiler chats with Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Hunter College and founder of Wise Therapeutics, about her new book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad) (Harper Wave, May 2022). Though anxiety has become a largely universal experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Dennis-Tiwary says it’s still misunderstood—and in need of a mindset shift. Rather than a bug or malfunction, she argues that anxiety is a useful and even transformative human feature that can help us create, innovate, and find meaning. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, did the problem you were trying to solve change at all over time?

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I started planning the book about a year before and writing in earnest during the pandemic, when no one on the planet did not know anxiety up close and personal. That fact deepened what I was trying to say: that we mental health professionals have unintentionally given people damaging information about anxiety. We’ve essentially spread two fallacies about anxiety.

First, that it’s always a debilitating experience. It’s even something we should think of as a disease, like COVID-19, which means the solution is to prevent it and eradicate it. But when it comes to anxiety, that’s a recipe for making things worse. The more we avoid and suppress, the more it tends to spiral out of control. We also lose the opportunity to look at its potentially helpful parts, because anxiety is an emotion that we’ve evolved to have, this ability to think into the future: to plan, to dream and imagine, and to hope. It also makes us more persistent, more innovative, more creative, and more socially connected. So this story we have all come to believe about anxiety is starting to get in the way, especially during a time like the pandemic when we can’t escape anxiety.

Second, that any experience of anxiety is a malfunction. So, we try to fix it and lose those opportunities to see how it can be a strength and source of resilience. A big goal of the book is, by shifting the mindset, having people consider “Is there something in this experience of anxiety that’s adaptive that I can work with? And how is anxiety different from an anxiety disorder?” The pandemic revealed that as well. Anxiety can be very intense, very extreme, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a disorder. Anxiety is an emotion that doesn’t need fixing. It’s not broken. It’s doing its work for us.

What does a healthy mindset about anxiety look like?

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It’s one in which we look at anxiety not as a problem to solve but as a feature of being human. Considering the difference between anxiety and fear helps us understand this. Fear is the present certainty; we’re absolutely certain that right now we’re in danger. But anxiety is not that; it is apprehension about the uncertain future. We know something’s coming around the bend and it could be bad, but it could also be good. A healthy mindset about anxiety acknowledges that there is real advantage to the experience, and it’s not the same as an anxiety disorder every single time.

A second aspect is considering anxiety as information, not a failure of happiness. It’s telling you that something could be dangerous or that there’s something you care about. We’re in it to win it when we’re anxious. A smoke alarm analogy is helpful: if one goes off at home, you wouldn’t put in earplugs and move to another part of the house where you can’t hear it. At the very least, you’d go check the batteries or go see if there really is a fire. When we think of anxiety this way, that changes everything about how we face anxious moments, whether they’re controllable or not.

A smoke alarm analogy is helpful: if one goes off at home, you wouldn’t put in earplugs and move to another part of the house where you can’t hear it. At the very least, you’d go check the batteries or go see if there really is a fire. When we think of anxiety this way, that changes everything about how we face anxious moments, whether they’re controllable or not.

A third aspect is thinking of anxiety not as something that overwhelms us when we face the uncertain world but rather that helps us navigate uncertainty. And of course, there’s nothing so certain in the human condition as uncertainty.

In practice, what effects can this mindset shift have?

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When we listen to anxiety as information that’s energizing us, instead of frightening and depleting us, it helps us be more innovative and creative. A group at Harvard did a study in 2013: they brought people into the lab struggling with social-anxiety disorder and had them do something called the Trier social stress test. You get up in front of a panel of people who are frowning and looking negative on purpose, then prepare a public speech in just a few minutes, then do a difficult math problem—which is really hard for socially anxious people.

So they took half of this group and taught them something about anxiety. For example, when you feel butterflies in your stomach and your heart is racing, that’s not a bad thing. That’s your body preparing to do well. That’s your body marshaling its resources to be brave and persistent. With the other half, they gave general information about anxiety but didn’t teach them this new mindset. The folks who learned that anxiety could be helpful did better during the experiment and also had lower blood pressure and heart rates. Their bodies showed fewer signs of the wear and tear that is, over time, one of the reasons why stress can be problematic. This mindset shift is the way that we can start to use anxiety, even when we’re nervous, to be truly helpful.

How else does anxiety help you? To see possibilities. Anxiety is that feeling that there is a possibility of possibilities. When we think of anxiety that way, we realize that it can make us more persistent. It can make us more fluent in thinking outside the box and being innovative, because we see a possibility for something good to happen.

What are we still learning about anxiety and how it serves us?

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We know that anxiety triggers the fight–flight response, which is why we think of it almost like fear. But it does much more than that, and science is only starting to emphasize these other aspects.

When we’re anxious, we are also more reward focused. We have higher levels of dopamine in our brain, which we typically associate with experiencing something pleasurable or even addiction. Why does anxiety trigger dopamine? Because dopamine helps us move toward positive outcomes. It doesn’t just happen after something positive but actually prepares us to make sure that positive thing happens.

When we’re anxious, we are also more reward focused. We have higher levels of dopamine in our brain, which we typically associate with experiencing something pleasurable or even addiction. Why does anxiety trigger dopamine? Because dopamine helps us move toward positive outcomes.

It also triggers our social bonding hormone, oxytocin, which increases when we’re with someone we love or when a mother nurses her child. When we’re anxious, that hormone shoots up. Why? Because social connection is one of the best ways to manage our anxiety. We actually outsource our coping because social buffering is a very real phenomenon. Being able to reach out to others to whom we feel connected, and who support us, helps us dial down anxiety and use it in more positive ways. Anxiety, when we see it as a way to navigate uncertainty, carries its own solutions.

How can we work with anxiety to use it to our advantage?

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In the book, I talk about a three-part framework for this. One is that we remember that anxiety is information, and we need to listen to it. Two is that sometimes it’s not useful information. We can learn to tell the difference. And when we know it’s not useful anxiety, we use the tools we have to let go and immerse ourselves in the present moment, get help through therapy, do those things that help us scale back from the future. Three is to hitch that anxiety to purpose, to something that really matters to you.

Purpose doesn’t have to be some overwhelming mission. It doesn’t have to be running a company and crushing it at all times—which is a great purpose. But it can be something tiny, like wanting to increase your family’s social connections to the world. Maybe you’ve decided “I feel a little isolated after the pandemic. I want my partner, my kids, and I to get out there and find community.” That can be purpose.

What role do managers and leaders play in fostering a healthier mindset about anxiety among their employees?

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When I think about leaders and managers, there’s so much awareness now that it’s OK to not be OK—which has been great. That’s one lesson we all learned during the pandemic, and companies have come to the table to understand how to support their employees. So one big step that I think a lot of companies are already taking is starting more open, destigmatizing conversations about mental health. Another is shifting the company culture toward an understanding that mental health is health.

At the same time, I think we’re ignoring the emotional labor that we now expect of leaders and managers. You’re a leader in your business and now you want to—and need to—have more open conversations about anxiety among your employees. But now that labor falls on you. Is it your job to monitor your employees or to remove all the obstacles that they face, so whenever you see them being anxious, you need to fix it right away?

I believe [that this is] unfair emotional labor to put only on leaders if there’s no real institutional support. Leaders need to realize that it can’t all be on them. That’s not what their job was meant to be and it’s not really what a company does. A company has to take care of its employees, but it also has a bottom line. And managers and leaders are right in between, where they’re trying to navigate these two often conflicting goals.

Leaders need to realize that it can’t all be on them. That’s not what their job was meant to be and it’s not really what a company does. A company has to take care of its employees, but it also has a bottom line. And managers and leaders are right in between, where they’re trying to navigate these two often conflicting goals.

I think that having conversations about the emotional labor that’s happening in the workplace, and how we can take some of that burden away from individual leaders and make it more institutional—to have formalized approaches in place—is also an important step.

In discussions of mental health, how emotionally honest should the workplace be?

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When I think about anxiety and mental health in the workplace, I also think about safe spaces. We have this idea that there has to be emotional safety for people to share what they’re experiencing when it comes to mental health. But the problem is that a lot of leaders feel nervous about those safe spaces. That if they say the wrong thing or they take one wrong step, they’ll do more damage than help. Or that they’ll be “canceled.”

I like to go back to the origin of safe spaces, which looked nothing like those of today. Kurt Lewin, a father of social psychology, created the first safe spaces after World War II. The goal was to improve awareness about racial and religious bigotry, so there were less of those prejudices in the workplace, and everyone could thrive. But these spaces were anything but emotionally safe. They were raw. They were honest. People were taught to communicate openly about their personal biases, with the assurance that there would be confidentiality and that they would not be judged. All of the research from that movement showed that those difficult conversations really allowed powerful change to happen in the workplace and beyond.

So when I think about navigating anxiety at work, I think about those difficult conversations. That we shouldn’t protect our employees from anxiety, from every uncomfortable emotion, but rather help them work through it. That these emotions we think of as dangerous are powerful, transformative, and crucial if we want to make things better internally, with our own mental health as well as within the workplace.

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Tracy Dennis-Tiwary on making anxiety your ally

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