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Why some anxiety is good, even though it feels bad

Carol Yepes/Getty Images
Carol Yepes/Getty Images

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Over her 20 years as a psychologist, Tracy Dennis-Tiwary noticed something about the way people talked about anxiety.

“Whenever we think of anxiety, we think of the language of dysfunction, despair. So, we have these mindsets that anxiety is actually always a disease, or it’s some sort of a character flaw,” Dennis-Tiwary says.

Anxiety disorders are very real. And can be crippling. But some anxiety is also evolutionarily advantageous.

“It’s preparing us to handle this uncertain future where something bad or good could happen, it prepares us to avert disaster, but also make our hopes into reality,” Dennis-Tiwary adds.

Today, On Point: Why some anxiety is good, even though it feels bad.


Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, professor of psychology and neuroscience. Director of the Emotion Regulation Lab at Hunter College. Chief Science Officer of Wise Therapeutics, a digital health therapeutics company. Author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad) (@tracyadennis)

Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Professor in the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. Author of Permission to Feel. Co-creator of HowWeFeel, an app designed to teach emotion skills. (@marcbrackett)

Also Featured

Dana Chudy, a library assistant in Clinton Township, Michigan.

Lenette Serlo, a mom of four in Davie, Florida.


DANA CHUDY: Probably as far back as I can remember. Kindergarten, maybe. I just remember being worried all the time.

KIMBERLY ATKINS STOHR: This is Dana Chudy. She’s an On Point listener in Clinton Township, Michigan.

CHUDY: Was I going to get in trouble for some little tiny thing? Was that kid next to me actually going to drink the glue as he promised to do? I remember just being terrified to go to gym class to the point where I would quote, forget my gym clothes at home. I would, you know, pretend to not be feeling well. I would do anything I could to get out of gym. I remember crying to my parents because I was so afraid that I was not going to understand how to play baseball. It was terrifying to me.

ATKINS STOHR: That feeling that she wouldn’t get something right, wouldn’t know something, and that something bad would happen became all too familiar to Dana. Today, she recognizes that as anxiety.

CHUDY: You can feel the adrenaline coursing through your body. Every piece of he was on high alert. You’re just in complete fight or flight to deal with the issues that you’re perceiving there to be.

ATKINS STOHR: During college, Dana says that anxiety pushed her to academic success that she might not have otherwise had. But Dana says it’s a stressor she could have done without.

CHUDY: I understand why someone who has not experienced anxiety could say, but look where this got you, because I was successful academically. But the internal struggle that puts you through is not worth it.

ATKINS STOHR: As an adult, Dana was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD, now working as a library assistant in Clinton Township, Michigan. On Point listener Dana Chudy is one of over 40 million adults in America who struggle with an anxiety disorder. But research also finds that anxiety, the emotion, is evolutionarily advantageous and has benefits to help us thrive. So today, that’s what we’ll focus on.

How anxiety can be good, even though it feels bad. And we’re borrowing that phrase from Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. She’s a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Hunter College in New York City. She’s also the author of Future Tense Why Anxiety is Good for You, even Though It Feels Bad. Tracy, welcome to On Point.

TRACY DENNIS-TIWARY: Thank you, Kimberly, It’s wonderful to be with you.

ATKINS STOHR: So I want to start this discussion sort of by defining our terms, because I think a lot of Americans, particularly over the last couple of years, understand what anxiety is, myself included. But I want to differentiate between anxiety the disorder, and anxiety the emotion. And help us do that.

DENNIS-TIWARY: So, first of all, even making that distinction, that anxiety is an emotion instead of a disorder is an important step because the language of anxiety, the language we use every day, is things like, Oh, she has anxiety. Or, Oh, you’re anxious, let’s get rid of that as soon as possible. So it’s really important to say that anxiety is an emotion and it’s a specific type of an emotion. It is an emotion that is comprised of feelings and thoughts that signal that we’re nervous about the uncertain future.

And I think your listener Dana really, you know, expresses some of those kinds of anxieties. It’s we’re sending ourselves into the future. We’re using our amazing ability to imagine what’s coming around the bend. And what we see there is that something bad could happen. But when you’re anxious, what science has shown us is that you also believe that a good outcome is still possible, so you’re not despairing. So that’s the uncertain future that we’re looking at when we’re anxious. And this is quite distinct from fear, because fear is an emotion that gives us the information that we’re facing certain and present danger.

So fear is that there’s a snake about to bite us. And anxiety is the feeling that, oh, when tomorrow I’m going for a walk in the woods, I might encounter a snake. And so while anxiety can feel a lot like fear and, you know, it’s that fight or flight response, anxiety is so much more. Because it’s this information about the uncertain future. And it’s preparing us to navigate that uncertainty by not only fight-flight protective mode, but also making us more focused, making us more persistent, innovative, even hopeful.

ATKINS STOHR: That’s really interesting because as you’re explaining this, I’m thinking of the times that I felt anxiety, that fight or flight instinct that you talk about. In particular … I’m thinking of being in that moment, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it as being an emotional response to thinking about the future. I just want you to talk about that a little bit more. What is it about the future that is specific to this emotion of anxiety?

DENNIS-TIWARY: It’s really that uncertainty. It’s that feeling that, you know, I’m imagining this conversation I’m going to have with a wonderful radio show host, you know, and I’m thinking about this tomorrow. And when you’re anxious, now if I were in despair, I would say, oh, my gosh, I just can’t do this. It’s going to be a disaster. But when I’m anxious, I start to think about, oh, okay, well, what might she ask me? And it might be a really fun conversation and how exciting I get this opportunity. And so on the spectrum of anxiety, and all emotions, are on a spectrum. You have panic, which is at that far end of the kind of danger zone feeling, but you also have excitement.

So on the spectrum, we actually have these positive experiences. And if you actually just swap in the world excited instead of anxious, all of a sudden your mindset about this feeling starts to change and you can start to say, oh, actually anxiety is feeling bad because it’s making me sit up and pay attention, taking time out of my day. To really focus on what I need to plan for and what actions I might need to take and when. When you think about emotion as an evolutionary advantage and by the way, Darwin devoted a third of his theory, when he actually laid out evolutionary theory, he devoted a third of it to emotions. It was his third book called The Expression of Emotions and Man and Animals.

And here he talks about how crucial it is to survival. So I always imagine prehistoric people maybe sitting around, you know, of a fire, maybe they’ve discovered fire by now and they just, you know, escape that sabertooth tiger. And maybe they found some food and they have a full belly. If they didn’t have the ability to use their big prefrontal cortexes, you know, their big brains that humans evolved to have and imagine, oh, maybe when I go and find shelter tonight, I shouldn’t go to that same cave where that sabertooth is … and I’m going to kind of run the ‘what if’ scenarios. It takes energy to do that, precious energy. It needs to grab us. It needs to make us sit up and pay attention and move out of the present and for a moment, project ourselves into the future. And that’s why anxiety has to feel bad to do its job.

ATKINS STOHR: So I want to distinguish anxiety, the emotion from other feelings. You mentioned fear. You distinguished a little bit between anxiety and fear. I think one that’s tougher for people to distinguish between is stress. What’s the difference between anxiety, the emotion and stress?

DENNIS-TIWARY: It’s such a great question because, you know, all of us fall prey to that saying kind of using the words interchangeably. Stress is not an emotion. It’s a calculation. It’s a calculation of, you know, given the demands and maybe the curveballs or opportunities that the world is throwing my way, do I have the internal and personal resources to meet that challenge, to meet those demands? And when your calculation is that the demands exceed your resources, that’s when we experience stress.

The interesting thing about stress, though, is that it can be both, you know, positive and negative. And under that umbrella, we experience all the emotions. So if I’m anticipating my upcoming wedding, I feel stressed about it because there’s a lot of planning to doing. There’s so many things to do, but there’s a lot of joy. Maybe there’s nervousness, maybe there’s frustration. So also emotions live under this umbrella of stress.

ATKINS STOHR: And how does someone distinguish between feeling the emotion of anxiety, particularly at a time, you know, we just came out of a pandemic or looking at economic uncertainty ahead? How do we distinguish from the emotion of anxiety, which, as you’ve explained, we need and can be a positive force from an anxiety disorder?

DENNIS-TIWARY: When we experience anxiety, we might experience it frequently. We might experience it even sometimes quite intensely. And perhaps, you know, maybe over a course of a month there’ll be a lot of anxiety in our lives or even longer. But we will not be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. At least we shouldn’t be unless there’s functional impairment. That is that the way we’re coping with that anxiety is getting in the way of living a full life, of working, of studying, of living, of loving, of doing all these things we need to do.

So, for example, if I’m a person who has some social anxieties where I fear that I’ll be perhaps humiliated in public, I’ll embarrass myself, I won’t be able to rise to the challenge. I could be socially anxious and still, you know, push through and figure out ways to cope and manage quite well. But if I start avoiding going to work, missing deadlines, if I’m a child and I start to refuse to go to school, if I turn down opportunities that are coming my way, cut off from my friends, if I’m using this avoidance as a way of coping with that feeling and it’s starting to get in the way of my life, that’s when we would be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

ATKINS STOHR: How should we be thinking differently about anxiety … knowing the difference between those two things when we feel that emotion inside of us? Should we think about it differently?

DENNIS-TIWARY: I think we need to think about it as an ally that we need to negotiate with because allies don’t just do whatever you want. You have to work with them. Or like that best friend that you never wanted to have. But they always tell you the truth and they’re actually there to help you in the long run. … What that does is that allows us to engage with anxiety and to know that anxiety is a wave. That we can build skills, we can learn to swim, we can learn to surf, we can learn to, you know, the boat set sail on this wave. And the mental health is not the absence of emotional discomfort. It’s the ability to work through that discomfort.

ATKINS STOHR: Lenette Serlo is a mom of four from Davie, Florida, and she shared with us her experience of how anxiety actually helped her.

LENETTE SERLO: It was a long time ago, but I can put myself back in that space very easily. And, you know, I’m sitting there in a room and I’m one of the youngest people in the room. And I’m aware that this quitting drinking doesn’t work for a lot of people.

ATKINS STOHR: Back in her twenties, Lenette regularly struggled to arrive at work on time. Her boss told her that if she wants to keep her job, she should seek help. Lenette saw a therapist who helped her understand how big a problem her drinking had become. That’s when she joined a 12-step program. Those meetings were terrifying.

SERLO: I would get this feeling inside me like a physical, fluttery butterflies in the belly kind of feeling. And when that happened? Something inside me knew you have to raise your hand and share. And I didn’t want to raise my hand and share because I’m shy by nature. I do have a lot of anxiety, but like, I just knew I had to do it. And so this, you know, I just remember so clearly. My hand goes up and I’m like, Oh, no, they’re going to call on me and I’m going to have to speak. And, you know, when I was done, I always felt so much relief and I always was glad I did it. I never regretted it.

ATKINS STOHR:  So what was it about that feeling that made her decide that she had to take that next step? Lenette says while the idea of sharing in a social setting might give some people the butterflies for her, there was an even greater anxiety about what would happen if she didn’t do anything about her addiction.

SERLO: I wasn’t concerned about what are they going to think of me? Which is interesting because in normal life I’m always worried about what everyone’s going to think of me. I felt like that wasn’t part of it. It was, I have to do this. This is a scary thing to do. And if I keep my mouth shut, this whole process of healing isn’t going to work.

ATKINS STOHR: Lenette, who’s now in her fifties, has been sober for three decades. So what did that experience teach her about how to make use of her anxiety?

SERLO: One of the things that’s taught me over time is that when I get that feeling, that anxiety comes to me. It’s not like, okay, go run for your blanket and cuddle up in your bed. It’s you need to do whatever is in front of you.

ATKINS STOHR: So, Tracy, up to now, we’ve been talking a lot about the evolutionary purpose of anxiety, the emotion. So now I want to spend a little bit of time talking about what actually happens to us when we experience that emotion, what happens to us physically? What has science taught us about that?

DENNIS-TIWARY: We know from decades of science that, as we could all attest to, when we’re anxious, we do feel that fight or flight response, our sympathetic nervous system goes into high gear. You know, every emotion gives us information about the world. And of course, with anxiety, it’s about uncertainty. And then with that information, emotions prepare us to act.

So with the fight or flight response, the threat detection and response system of our brains on high alert, the vigilance, all of that is happening and it’s preparing us to protect ourselves. But there’s this whole other aspect of anxiety that we scientists, because we’re also, of course, human beings have really just started to build an evidence based around just started to ask these questions about, well, are there ways that actually anxiety can propel us forward as as not just protective, but productive?

So more recent evidence has come out to show that, especially when we’ve shifted our mindset like Linette has, that that this this this feeling of activation is not necessarily dangerous but actually might be our body preparing to perform and to do what it needs to do. When we shift our mindset, we can actually start to see and the biology supports this, that when we’re anxious, we for example, have increases in oxytocin, which is the social bonding hormone.

This is a hormone that increases when we’re with our loved ones, but it also primes us to seek out those connections. And of course, social connections. Social support is one of the best ways to manage anxiety and to figure out what to, you know, how to really cope with it and what to do with this emotion when we’re anxious. We also see that especially and again, I’m talking about for the most part, you know, moderate levels of anxiety. I’m not talking about a full-blown anxiety disorder.

And to, you know, to say that, oh, yeah, we should just, you know, go to that extreme. But. But what evidence shows is that when we have moderate levels of anxiety, we also find that dopamine is spiking in our brain. This neurotransmitter that allows areas of our brain to efficiently communicate with each other so that we can pursue goals. And we also see that anxiety when it’s induced in us.

ATKINS STOHR: Well, I want to add another voice to this conversation. Joining us now is Marc Brackett. He’s the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Studies Center at the Yale School of Medicine. Marc, welcome to On Point.

MARC BRACKETT: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

ATKINS STOHR: So I want you first to talk about this idea of good anxiety and how you’ve experienced that yourself and just sort of reacting to our conversation so far.

BRACKETT: I think what’s important about what Tracy has been talking about is that we as a society oftentimes think of emotions as good or bad. Right? Happy as good. Sad is bad, right? Content is good. Anxiety, stress, overwhelm is bad. And I think from our perspective, which is similar to Tracy’s, emotions are information, they are data. They ensure survival, as you heard. They help us make informed decisions. They help us build and maintain healthy relationships.

And so from our perspective, getting granular about how you feel is super important. And you’ve talked about lots of different terms thus far. Anxiety, stress, fear, overwhelm. And the way I like to think about it is that when you have precise words to describe your feelings and you have a good definition of that concept, it gives you the information for what to do with that feeling.

I just want to say, for example, if my brain is perceiving uncertainty around the future like we felt for the last three years, how I deal with that feeling will be different than when I am experiencing stress, where I have too many demands and not enough resources, or I’m feeling fearful. You know, there’s a perceived threat or danger. And so in that way, again, there’s no good or bad emotions. If we can learn how to use our feelings wisely, we can achieve all of our dreams.

ATKINS STOHR: And use our feelings wisely. I think that is a key here. So how do we keep it in perspective? Meaning, how do we keep from making this anxiety about what’s out of our control and what’s this uncertainty about the future feel bigger than it is? You know, if in the face of some sort of challenge.

BRACKETT: Well, I’ll give you my own example, because I feel like I have to, you know, practice what I preach. You know, back when the pandemic first hit, you know, our universities shut down. We’re all working in remote fashion. You know, we’re using Windex to, you know, clean our groceries. There was a lot of uncertainty around. And, you know, there came a point where I was thinking to myself, All right, Marc. Like, how much control do you have over this? Not very much.

BRACKETT: So how useful is it for you to sit around all day, you know, ruminating, you know, about this? It’s not that useful. And so given that, I didn’t have much control about it, but I was yet wasting, you know, a significant amount of time heightening my anxiety. I realized I needed another approach. That’s the idea of using emotions wisely. It was like … the anxiety is important. I do want to stay safe. I want to be careful, I want to keep my mask on, etc. But it’s not useful to ruminate all day. And so what’s the alternative? You know, there’s things like positive self-talk or reappraisal or reframing. And I think that’s where society has, you know, fallen short in terms of educating people that people just don’t even know these strategies exist, nor how to apply them to themselves.

ATKINS STOHR: Tracy, I want you to talk about that, too. How do you help people think about anxiety and how to react to it differently? I mean, I’m thinking of myself during the pandemic. You know, there were times that I had a cabinet full of toilet paper, and I felt better about that. But then on the flip side, there was, you know, after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, I didn’t go running for like three months just because even though I knew logically I would be fine, it was just difficult to get out the door and do that. What do you say to people who are dealing with that type of anxiety? How do you turn that into positive action?

DENNIS-TIWARY: It’s an eye opener, and I agree wholeheartedly with Marc as well. And, you know, we have these heartbreaking, horrible things. That happened to us in life and anxiety is going to be inevitable. So we actually have no choice but to build skills in as Marc says, as you know, using it as information and figuring out how to, you know, how to funnel it, how to channel it into something useful. I think, you know, I think about this process and it is a skill building process. We mental health professionals, I think, need to take a serious moment and think about where we’ve failed people because we’ve started to convince people that mental health is sort of the state that you achieve.

That as Mark was saying, it’s you have good feelings and that means you have mental health. And really what we need to accept the way it’s the only way out is through that we can engage these emotions and they’re not going to destroy us. They’re not dangerous. We can build skills in them. So I think about that process of building skills and also shifting our mindset that emotions can be an advantage as we take I kind of think of them as three L’s that you build skills with listening to these emotions, leveraging and then letting go.

When we go right to suppression, right to avoidance, it’s amplifies every feeling we have and it’s an opportunity cost to learn how to cope. So we have these very valid fears, valid anxieties, these valid feelings. Let’s take a moment and get radical and just allow them to be abide with these feelings, with our children’s feelings when we see them in our kids, which is so scary. All of us parents go through that and to guilt, get these skills and being curious and open to these emotional experiences, knowing that negative emotions do not equal bad.

And so that is a crucial first step. And then with that information, we can start to figure out what can we control, what can’t we? How can I take actions that can make my life better, the lives of others around me better? And we can start to leverage leverage that anxiety to purpose and to meaningful action, and then let go and use all the skills at our disposal, everything from seeing our therapist, our spiritual advisor to taking a run. Because exercise is an amazing way to come back to the present moment when anxiety is sending us into the future tense. I love to write poetry. It’s bad poetry, it’s terrible, but I love to let my mind work in a different way that allows me to immerse myself in in the present moment. And so we can build these skills to listen, leverage and then let go.

ATKINS STOHR: I know a lot of our listeners are probably seeing anxiety in their children. What should they be doing to help them or others loved ones themselves deal with anxiety, particularly children? You know, how do you give them the tools?

BRACKETT: Yeah, it’s a great question. A couple of things. You know, the one thing that I’m thinking about, you know, especially with children, you know, there was a recent article about doctors should be screening children as young as eight years old, you know, for anxiety and teenagers for depression. And a colleague and I were talking about this and we said maybe we need to screen the adults who are raising and teaching kids, because I think we fail to recognize that children, you know, absorb what’s in their environment.

And so I just want to say upfront that adults who are raising and teaching children how to be role models, you know, I didn’t grow up with a role model in that space. My mother had tremendous anxiety, but her anxiety was always, you know, she didn’t know how to use it wisely. So she would kind of run around saying, I’m having a breakdown, I can’t take it anymore. And so I learned very quickly as a child who was anxious. You know, I’m not going to talk to my mom, you know, about my anxiety because she’ll have a breakdown.

And so, you know, that was not a great start, you know, for my career, although it did motivate me to want to become a psychologist. And so first is, you know, adults being role models. And I say role models in that we have to make it safe for adults to talk about their feelings of worry or stress or anxiety. We just have to do it in a way that doesn’t make our kids feel like they have to take care of us. And that’s where, you know, demonstrating those strategies is so important.

So, for example, when I was highly anxious in the beginning of the pandemic and decided, you know, probably my entire team is anxious, so I might as well just be transparent about it, you know, and then share what I’m doing about it. So as Tracy said, I used to say, you know, I’m not letting myself just go down that rabbit hole. I’m taking my walks every day, you know, not watching the news that’s going to make my brain just go out of control. Like I’m demonstrating that I can have the feeling that I have strategies to deal with, the feeling I can still be a leader. And I think the same thing applies to parents.

The parents have to be able to have those comfortable conversations. By way of example, I was just working with teenagers yesterday in a high school and, you know, I talk about this idea of permission to feel and they said to me, you know. I get it, but I can’t do it. And I said, Why is that? They said, Because vulnerability in our environment is a risk because people will think you’re weak and they will judge you. And so when I say there is that, not only do we have to teach the language and the strategies, but we’ve got to figure out a way to change the culture and climate of our schools, of our government, so that we’re not creating conditions where children feel these strong, unpleasant feelings.

Related Reading

Wall Street Journal: “In Praise of Anxiety” — “Nobody likes to feel anxious. Anxiety is among the most pervasive and reviled of human emotions. An entire industry has sprung up to aid us in eradicating it, from self-help books and holistic remedies to pharmaceuticals and cutting-edge cognitive behavioral therapy. Yet we are an ever more profoundly anxious society.”

EducationWeek: “‘There’s No Such Thing as Bad Emotions’ and Other Truths Students Need to Know” — “Most people want to be more emotionally intelligent, but how do we do that? I use the acronym RULER to talk about five essential skills. The first R is recognizing emotions in myself and others. That’s paying attention to my physiology, to where my brain is taking me. It’s paying attention to your facial expressions, vocal tone, body language—trying to make meaning out of that.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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