We tend to think of anxiety as a bad thing, and it certainly can be. Clinical anxiety disorders can be debilitating, and, as many of us have discovered during the pandemic, even high levels of everyday, garden-variety anxiety are pretty darn unpleasant.
But if anxiety is just mental torture, why did humans evolve to be so prone to worry? Anxiety, it turns out, has upsides (even in the modern world where we're not running from predators all the time). Science has shown that worrying more helps people take sensible precautions, feel more grateful for the good in their lives, and can even boost your memory.
The key to reaping these benefits is controlling both the quantity of your anxiety and how you react to it. Chronic stress will slowly kill you (and quickly kill your joy), but the right amount of stress channeled the right way can give you superpowers, according to neuroscience.
Anxiety can actually be a superpower
That's the contention of New York University neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, at least. Suzuki is the author of a new book, Good Anxiety, which, as the title implies, argues that anxiety can actually be a positive force in our lives. In a recent interview with the Greater Good Science Center's Kira Newman, Suzuki even goes so far as to claim anxiety can transform into a superpower.
But you have to get ahold of it first. Those with really serious anxiety issues should seek treatment, and the rest of us worriers should learn basic techniques -- like deep breathing and the importance of exercise and movement -- to turn down the volume knob on our anxiety when it gets too loud. But once your anxiety is at a manageable if not enjoyable level, Suzuki insists it's possible to spin it into a positive force.
Suzuki talks about "the superpower of productivity," which you can tap into simply by listening carefully to the actual content of your worries. "A very, very common manifestation of anxiety is that 'what if' list that comes in your head: What if I get sick with Covid, what if I don't get an A, what if I can't remember what the professor said on this part of the test? The superpower that comes with that anxiety-induced what-if list is shifting that into a to-do list," she explains to Newman.
Worried about an upcoming exam? Review the most confusing material. Worried about a work project? Reach out to a brilliant colleague for some advice. Worried about global warming? Read up on ways to cut your climate footprint or lobby your elected officials for action.
"I haven't been confronted with anything that it doesn't work for," Suzuki claims. The best part of this approach is that it harnesses all the energy you usually waste worrying and directs it into constructive action.
"Good anxiety is using the activation energy of that anxiety-induced stress response to get something done, to take that warning signal and do something with it, whether that's study for that test, or make that appointment for your vaccination if you choose to do so, or consult your financial adviser if you're worried about money. In completing the to-do, you help resolve that feeling of anxiety, and it makes you more productive," she concludes.
If transforming your anxiety into a superpower sounds appealing to you, check out Suzuki's book for a more detailed discussion of turning your worry into a force for good in your life.