Q&A with Dr. Wendy Suzuki on the parasympathetic nervous system and harnessing anxiety for good

Anx­i­ety can feel like a heavy weight that we didn’t ask to car­ry. Who wouldn’t love to get rid of it?

But neu­ro­sci­en­tist Wendy Suzu­ki wants to chal­lenge the way we look at our anx­i­ety. In fact, her new book is called Good Anx­i­ety: Har­ness­ing the Pow­er of the Most Mis­un­der­stood Emo­tion.

If you’re skep­ti­cal, so was I. But Suzuki’s point is that anx­i­ety is a nat­ur­al human emo­tion, one that evolved to serve a pur­pose. We feel anx­ious when there is some kind of dan­ger; it primes our body to fight or flee from that dan­ger, in hopes that we’ll end up bet­ter off (i.e., alive). In the same way, our mod­ern anx­i­eties can be a warn­ing sig­nal for things that are wrong: not enough rest, too much mul­ti­task­ing, iso­la­tion from oth­ers. Our anx­ious ener­gy alerts us to change our lives for the bet­ter, she argues.

If we sim­ply approach it as some­thing to avoid, get rid of, or damp­en, we not only don’t solve the prob­lem but actu­al­ly miss an oppor­tu­ni­ty to lever­age the gen­er­a­tive pow­er of anx­i­ety,” she writes.

To do that, we first need to turn down the vol­ume of our anx­i­ety, so that we can lis­ten to what it has to say. Meant for peo­ple with every­day anx­i­ety (not anx­i­ety dis­or­ders), Good Anx­i­ety explains how to do that in order to make your life more pro­duc­tive, cre­ative, and con­nect­ed. In our Q&A, Suzu­ki high­lights some of the ideas from her book.

Kira M. New­man: How is good anx­i­ety dif­fer­ent from bad anxiety?

Wendy Suzu­ki: My sim­ple def­i­n­i­tion of anx­i­ety is the feel­ing of fear or wor­ry typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with sit­u­a­tions of uncer­tain­ty. What­ev­er it is—I don’t know what grade I’m going to get, I don’t know if I’m going to have enough mon­ey to do what I want to do, I don’t know whether I should get the boost­er shot for COVID-19—all of these things con­tribute to uncer­tain­ty that trig­gers anxiety.

I call the book Good Anx­i­ety because the emo­tion of anx­i­ety, which is part of our nor­mal human emo­tion­al land­scape, and that under­ly­ing stress response that comes when we have anx­i­ety, evolved to pro­tect us. In fact, as we evolved, it was crit­i­cal for our sur­vival because back in those times, most of our threats were phys­i­cal threats to our lives—lions, tigers, and bears. If there was that crack of a twig that launched you into anx­i­ety, then it was absolute­ly crit­i­cal that you had this stress­ful fight-or-flight response so that you could either fight the bear or run away from the bear.

Good anx­i­ety comes with a bet­ter aware­ness that anx­i­ety is pro­tec­tive, and going through all the exer­cis­es and using the tools in my book allows you to take advan­tage of what anx­i­ety orig­i­nal­ly evolved to do, which is to put us into action that will give us a bet­ter outcome.

Today, I’m the first to acknowl­edge that nobody is feel­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly pro­tect­ed by their anx­i­ety, but the rea­son for that is that we have the equiv­a­lent of twigs crack­ing all around us all the time: the weath­er reports, the news cycle, Insta­gram, all of these things are per­ceived as threats and cause for wor­ry, fear, anxiety.

KMN: What is the dif­fer­ence between good and bad anx­i­ety in the body?

WS: Chron­ic anx­i­ety and stress is very, very bad for basi­cal­ly all our sys­tems in our bod­ies. High lev­els of stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol can first dam­age and then kill cells in two key areas of the brain that we need for opti­mum per­for­mance: the hip­pocam­pus (crit­i­cal for long-term mem­o­ry) and the pre­frontal cor­tex (crit­i­cal for focus and deci­sion mak­ing). But it’s not just the brain. Chron­ic anx­i­ety has detri­men­tal effects on your heart, on your immune system.

Good anx­i­ety is basi­cal­ly, going back to 2.5 mil­lion years ago, how it evolved to be help­ful; it is that warn­ing sys­tem that helps put you into action, but then it sub­sides. Most peo­ple have all heard of the fight-or-flight system—that’s the stress sys­tem, it makes your heart rate go up and you can run away real­ly fast. Well, peo­ple don’t real­ize that through evo­lu­tion in par­al­lel with the fight-or-flight sys­tem evolved an equal and oppo­site part of our ner­vous sys­tem that’s nick­named the “rest-and-digest” part of the ner­vous sys­tem, or parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem. It’s basi­cal­ly the de-stress­ing part of our ner­vous sys­tem. That is what we need to acti­vate to bring our­selves back to equi­lib­ri­um when we’re in a stress­ful state.

KMN: You have a whole sec­tion of the book with lots of dif­fer­ent tools to help us decrease bad anx­i­ety. How do we fig­ure out where to start?

WS: Let me give every­body my top two go-to’s for using the tools to decrease anx­i­ety, because they’re fast, they’re easy, they work, and there’s a lot of sci­ence behind them, includ­ing sci­ence that I’ve done in my lab.

So tool num­ber one is breath­work. Just sim­ple, deep breath­ing. I rec­om­mend a box breath­ing approach: inhal­ing on a four count, hold­ing at the top for four counts, exhal­ing on a four count, hold­ing at the bot­tom for four counts. This works because it is lit­er­al­ly acti­vat­ing that parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem. There’s a rea­son why monks for hun­dreds and hun­dreds of years have turned to breath­work to calm them­selves down, to get into a med­i­ta­tive state. They may not have known the term “parasym­pa­thet­ic ner­vous sys­tem,” but that is exact­ly what that deep breath­work is doing.

Num­ber two go-to is mov­ing your body. I’m not talk­ing about marathon running—I’m talk­ing about going out­side, walk­ing around the block, walk­ing around your din­ing room table if you are iso­lat­ing. Mov­ing your body is acti­vat­ing a whole bunch of neu­ro­chem­i­cals released in your brain. I like to say that every sin­gle time you move your body, it’s like you’re giv­ing your brain a won­der­ful bub­ble bath of neu­ro­chem­i­cals, includ­ing dopamine, sero­tonin, and endor­phins. I’m sure peo­ple have noticed that when they go for a walk, they go out­side when they can’t take it any­more, they feel bet­ter when they come back.

I start with the breath because it’s eas­i­est to do. You can do it in the mid­dle of an anx­i­ety-pro­vok­ing sit­u­a­tion, and nobody even knows you’re doing it (it’s hard to do some jump­ing jacks in the mid­dle of an anx­i­ety-pro­vok­ing sit­u­a­tion, that’s a lit­tle bit awkward).

KMN: What inter­est­ing research about anx­i­ety would be help­ful for read­ers to know about?

WS: I will share some of the most recent find­ings from my lab; these are pre­lim­i­nary data where we start­ed to look at real­ly short inter­ven­tions. Some­times you don’t have 45 min­utes to go to a full med­i­ta­tion class or lis­ten to a full lec­ture on mind­set, so we looked at five and 10-minute inter­ven­tions of either breath­work or chair yoga that are easy to do at work, or at your din­ing room table.

These have turned out to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly effec­tive for imme­di­ate reduc­tion of anx­i­ety lev­els, which is great. YouTube gives you free access to hun­dreds and hun­dreds and hun­dreds of short and long yoga, breath­work, even short move­ment exer­cis­es. Not to men­tion songs if you just want to stand up and dance, which is one of my favorite ways to move your body, espe­cial­ly if you’re all alone danc­ing in your liv­ing room.

Have these things in your back pock­et so you’re not search­ing on YouTube as your anx­i­ety attack is devel­op­ing. It can be five, 10 min­utes of this activ­i­ty that can sig­nif­i­cant­ly decrease your anx­i­ety levels.

KMN: What do we tend to do in those moments when we’re start­ing to feel anx­ious that is counterproductive?

WS: I think it’s very com­mon to start to be anx­ious about being anx­ious, so you have a meta-anx­i­ety going on. You’re feel­ing your­self going into anx­i­ety and that just makes you even more anx­ious and brings you down into the void of anx­i­ety even faster.

The goal or the promise of Good Anx­i­ety is that when you start to feel that—instead of say­ing, “Oh no, I’m start­ing to feel anx­ious, what do I do?”—you have 10 pos­si­ble things that you can do right now (depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion) that you’ve already test­ed, that you know you can do, that you know you like, that can imme­di­ate­ly work. Pull it out of your back pock­et, use it right there, and that will quell your anxiety.

KMN: What do peo­ple do once they’ve turned down the vol­ume of anxiety?

WS: Step two is learn­ing about what that anx­i­ety is telling you about your val­ues, your life, your lifestyle. You can ask your­self: Why did I get anx­ious? What caused that? What can I under­stand about this that I could address in the future, per­haps in a dif­fer­ent way? Once you turn the vol­ume down on anx­i­ety, it allows you to step back and learn and con­tem­plate what this anx­i­ety is telling you about your val­ues, about how you’re liv­ing your life, about the pat­terns in your life.

That thing that caus­es me anx­i­ety may nev­er change. I’ve had many of my anx­i­eties from the time that I was very lit­tle. I talk a lot about my own anx­i­eties since I cov­ered them in the book, and one of the old­est that I talk about is social anx­i­ety. I was a very, very shy, awk­ward kid. All through high school and col­lege, I always had that fear of ask­ing ques­tions in class, and to this day I get scared of social situations.

So I find myself think­ing, “OK, well that’s always going to be there, how can I make that eas­i­er for myself?” So, go with friends, make sure I have some­body (either a new friend or an old friend) that I can talk to that eas­es my way in. While I have social anx­i­ety and it always makes me ner­vous to make new friends, I have this human desire to be part of a social group, and my dear friends are some of the most com­fort­ing ele­ments in my whole life.

KMN: And the third step in this process is to reap the ben­e­fits of anx­i­ety? What does that mean?

WS: There are six dif­fer­ent gifts or super­pow­ers that I talk about, and the eas­i­est one to under­stand and imple­ment for any­body is the super­pow­er of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty that comes from your spe­cif­ic anxiety.

Here’s how that works. 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. So, you’re wor­ried about fail­ing a par­tic­u­lar exam. Obvi­ous­ly, to-do: Find a friend to study with, find a tutor, study these par­tic­u­lar three lec­tures that were con­fus­ing to you.

Every­thing, includ­ing exis­ten­tial threats of glob­al warming—what if the world gets too hot?—there are 10 things that every­body can do to decrease their car­bon foot­print, and it takes a sin­gle Google search to fig­ure that out and to actu­al­ly do it. I haven’t been con­front­ed with any­thing that it doesn’t work for.

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 advi­sor if you’re wor­ried about mon­ey. In com­plet­ing the to-do, you help resolve that feel­ing of anx­i­ety, and it makes you more productive.

KMN: What else would you like read­ers to know? 

WS: I guess I would say that my wish for every­body who reads the book and dives into all the tools is that they come out with a more ful­fill­ing, more cre­ative, and an over­all less stress­ful life in bring­ing these tools and approach­es into their lives to flip their bad anx­i­ety to good. That’s what I found as I’ve prac­ticed these tools, and so that is what I hope for all of the readers.

– Kira M. New­man is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of Greater Good and the co-edi­tor of The Grat­i­tude Project. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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