Anxiety is a bit like using spices while cooking. Some of it is good, delicious even. Too much? You can ruin a meal – or your day.
But the fact that many of us have experienced a bit too much anxiety in recent years can make it easy to forget the benefits of a healthy dose of it.
Wendy Suzuki, neuroscientist and author of Good Anxiety, refers to these benefits as anxiety’s superpowers: productivity, flow, and empathy.
To enjoy these benefits, she says, we need to learn how to turn down the volume on unhealthy levels of anxiety.
The most effective ways to do that, she explains, are:
Meditation and breath-work
“Breathing deeply in and out – it couldn’t be simpler – is the best way to quell those feelings of anxiety,” she says.
There are many different ways to do this. Her favorite? “It’s called boxed breathing, which is simply inhaling on a four-count, holding at the top for four counts, exhaling on a four-count, holding at the bottom for four counts.”
Physical activity or exercise
“Moving your body is one of the most transformative things that you can do for your brain today,” Suzuki says. It increases your motivation to exercise and improves your attitude. Keep it up for three months and it will improve your attention and focus.
Seizing Anxiety’s Superpowers
The great benefit of healthy levels of anxiety is that it serves as a warning signal. “It is there to say, ‘Hey, this is a challenging thing, pay attention,'” Suzuki explains. And if you respond to these warning signs appropriately, they can lead to what she calls anxiety’s three superpowers:
The superpower of productivity
“A very common form of anxiety is the what if list that comes up in your brain. For me, it comes up right before I’m about to go to sleep. And I think, ‘Oh my gosh, what if I didn’t do that? What if I did do that but I did it wrong? What are the other things that I did wrong today?’
“So, how does that give you a gift of productivity? Every time that happens, I tell myself, I am going to address every one of these what-ifs tomorrow morning. And I’m going to turn each one of the what-ifs into a to-do. This can make us as productive as possible because those what-ifs are directing us towards those things that are of value to us.”
The superpower of flow
“Flow is that state of high performance. You’re doing something you’ve trained for hours and hours, years and years. You’re doing something you’ve been doing. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s beautiful.”
The superpower of empathy
“Think about the most common or the oldest form of anxiety you’ve been living with. You know what it feels like. You know what it looks like. And now you have a wonderful way to share your empathy by turning that anxiety to the outside, recognizing that in others, and simply saying a kind word.
“It turns our form of anxiety into more empathy for the world,” Suzuki adds, “and I can’t think of anything else that we need more in this world than empathy.”
Dr. Wendy Suzuki was a speaker at the 2022 California Conference for Women. This article is adapted from her talk. The 2023 California Conference for Women will be held in person on March 1 and virtually on March 2.