New View EDU Episode 48: What We Can Learn From Anxiety

Available November 7, 2023

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We’re accustomed to thinking of anxiety as something undesirable. But what if anxiety could actually be an effective tool, teaching us how to take appropriate risks, manage setbacks, and build resilience? That’s the premise of Tracy Dennis-Tiwary’s book Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You Even Though it Feels Bad.

Tracy Dennis-TiwaryTracy joins host Tim Fish to discuss her research on the benefits of anxiety and the lessons it can teach us. With higher-than-ever rates of burnout, stress, and depression occurring in both students and adults, Tim asks Tracy to explain why she believes anxiety is a positive emotion to harness in schools.

Tracy begins by clarifying that anxiety as a feeling is separate from anxiety disorders, which are health issues and should be treated seriously. But, Tracy cautions, in our desire to exercise caution around diagnosable mental health issues, we often go too far in trying to help students avoid any feeling of anxiety. That impulse to completely eradicate anxious thoughts and feelings, she says, may be doing more harm than good.

Reframing non-clinical anxiety as an emotion that helps us to forecast the future, Tracy explains that the uncertainty that underlies anxiety can be a powerful tool. It pushes us to envision potential scenarios, plan for different outcomes, and stay mentally and physically alert going into important events. In short, anxiety reminds us of what we care about, where we want our effort to go, and what we need to do to work toward the best possible outcomes. It forces us to pay attention to detail in order to avert disaster, and Tracy argues that making anxiety our “ally”—by listening to it and working with the cues it provides—is a core skill for building resilience.

Does that mean we should ignore all anxiety in students? Far from it. Tracy recommends building in scaffolding to help kids grow in their ability to tolerate anxiety. She introduces the concept of “anti-fragility”—not just the absence of fragility, but the ability to grow and thrive through the experience of feeling anxious. To set up our schools to build anti-fragility in students, Tracy says, we need to move away from attempting to cultivate achievement and passion and focus instead on helping kids find a sense of purpose. Supporting them in figuring things out for themselves, developing an identity around what they can offer to the world around them, and growing in confidence as people who can withstand both challenge and failure—despite feeling anxiety along the way—is the best way we can set students up to navigate an uncertain future.

Key Questions

Some of the key questions Tim and Tracy explore in this episode include:

  • What is the difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder? How can educators understand and identify the difference?
  • What do you think about the concept of productive struggle? Is anxiety valuable in productive struggle, or is it damaging?
  • How did we get to the point where we think of anxiety as something we need to avoid and eradicate at all costs? How can we instead make anxiety our ally?
  • What strategies can educators use to design their practices around harnessing the positive power of anxiety?

Episode Highlights

  • “Anxiety is apprehension about the uncertain future. So what that means is that when we're anxious, we're not actually in the moment. We're actually becoming mental time travelers into the future. And what anxiety both signals and helps us do really effectively is picture that future. There is potential threat or peril. That's why it feels bad. We're kind of sitting up and paying attention. But at the same time, when we're anxious, there is also still positive possibility.” (6:22)
  • “You don't go from zero to a hundred. You start with little 10-pound weights. And it's the same for this emotional endurance. We have to think of not psychological or mental health so much as mental fitness. I just think it sets us up, when it comes especially to anxiety and major anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, substance-use disorders, or these kinds of struggles. Let's think about fitness, because we can build these skills for people, we can help them. But you don't do it by going from zero to 100.” (17:57)
  • “Part of the gift and the problem of the parenting space right now, if I may say, is that we have this sort of parenting advice industrial complex, right? Where I feel that, as wonderful as the advice out there is, it's created this culture in which we feel like we have to check off 100 out of 100 boxes on the good parenting checklist. And if we don't, we're a bad parent, we're letting down our kid.” (29:06)
  • “Thomas Edison, who said—and I think of him as someone who was an excellence-ist, someone who didn't get stopped by perfectionism—he said, I haven't failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that don't work. We have to let our kids be Thomas Edison, and again, not just to achieve or to solve, but also to gain the emotional confidence and dignity and belief that they can do it. Because I think kids today don't believe they can handle their anxiety and their sadness. They feel that they're going to spiral and lose control and it will destroy them. And we have to allow them to know that 99% of the time, they will be able to handle it.” (35:03)

Resource List

Full Transcript

  • Read the full transcript here.

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About Our Guest

Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D., is a scientist, entrepreneur, and author. She is a professor of psychology and neuroscience, director of the Emotion Regulation Lab at Hunter College, The City University of New York, and co-founder and CSO of Arcade Therapeutics, where she translates cutting-edge neuroscience research into gamified, clinically validated digital therapeutics for mental health. She has been featured throughout the media, including The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post, NPR, ABC, CBS, CNN, the Today show, and Bloomberg Television. Tracy is also the author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You Even Though it Feels Bad.