Future Tense: Why anxiety is good for you (even though it feels bad)
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary (Littlebrown, 2022)
This fascinating book by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary (Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology) traces the history of anxiety and identifies factors influencing the high rates we are seeing nowadays. According to recent figures, in any given year 18% of teenagers in the USA will suffer from an anxiety disorder*. This high prevalence is partly explained by the increasing medicalisation of anxiety, the ways anxiety is defined in current psychiatric classification models and the increased use of pharmaceutical treatments.
Dennis-Tiwary draws on wide-ranging evidence to challenge the medicalisation of anxiety. This medical perspective can cause us to miss the constructive role anxiety can play in bringing about change in our lives and developing resilience. Dennis-Tiwary draws attention to how anxiety can motivate and energise. Studies show that we are more creative and innovative when ‘activated’ regardless of whether this is in a positive or negative way (ie. angry, anxious or joyful). From this perspective, anxiety can be seen as an important communication which helps us to mobilise and take action.
There is a lot of criticism of the negative effects of social media as a contributor to anxiety. Tiwary reports on a series of studies which shed light on this issue. Negative effects appear to be reduced when we are using social media in active rather than passive ways (avoid the doom scrolling and endless social comparison!). Research also shows how our uses of social media for connection and social support are changing. In an experimental study with teenager girls, access to text communications with a close family member while doing stressful tasks activated the social bonding hormone (oxytocin) which helped to reduce anxiety.
The pandemic provides further evidence of our resilience in dealing with anxiety. Surprisingly, anxiety levels for young people did not spiral upwards as anticipated. Two large-scale international studies tracking anxiety rates in teenagers during the pandemic showed that rates of anxiety remained stable and 41% reported feeling happier during lockdown. This is partly attributed to fewer stressors and social demands but also by the fact people were able to find practical ways to alleviate anxious feelings.
Tiwary encourages a re-conceptualisation and locates anxiety mid-way on a spectrum between optimism and pessimism. Anxiety animates us because we feel we can do something about the situation. She encourages us to see anxiety as the ‘secret sauce’ that can lead to constructive action. Her overriding message is not to fear anxiety but to see it as an important mind-body communication. The question of how to eliminate anxiety is misguided. It is more helpful to become curious about what is motivating anxiety and direct our attention to what we can do.
A client recently described to me how the relationship with his anxiety ‘completely changed’ after experiencing an episode of panic. When we feel this way about anxiety it can cause us to avoid more and more situations to try and prevent the feeling re-occurring. The main focus of hypnotherapy is in helping clients develop techniques and strategies and to recognise how they can respond to anxious feelings in constructive ways.