Health & Wellness Expert: Anxiety ‘An Advantage’

Anxiety as a force for good was the topic of two Upper School talks by celebrated psychologist and neuroscientist Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D.

A Hunter College professor and prolific speaker on the topic of anxiety, Dennis-Tiwary spoke to both students and parents about pervasive and popular misunderstandings of the dreaded emotion in separate assemblies in Baker Theater on January 5.  

“We have to radically change the way we are talking about anxiety,” she said. “Anxiety is not a bug in the system. It’s a feature. It’s an advantage.

“It has to be uncomfortable, it has to make us pay attention — to make us work to make our futures better,” she said. “We need this difficult, horrible, crazy emotion. We need it, and that means we need to figure out how to work with it.”

Dennis-Tiwary was the second speaker in the inaugural year of the ’WICK Center Speaker Series, which brings leading thinkers to the Upper School for daylong visits that focus on wellness, insight, courage, and kindness. She delivered her talk, Rethinking Anxiety: Why Anxiety Can Be An Advantage, and What to Do When It’s Not, to Upper Schoolers in the morning before joining students for lunch in the dining hall for questions and one-on-one conversation. She spoke to parents in the evening. 

Dennis-Tiwary said that anxiety is a normal human emotion that suffers from a “public relations” problem. Undeniably unpleasant, the unease of anxiety has been cast as a disease, a malfunction, even a character flaw — and that only causes the disquiet to multiply.

“The problem with the disease mindsets is they converge on the same solutions: Avoid. Ignore. Suppress. Fix. Eradicate. Go around it.

“That never ever, ever works,” she said. “It’s literally a recipe for making anxiety worse. It amplifies it. In anything you try to suppress, it’s going to bounce back stronger.

“We are stuck in a situation where we believe in the wrong things about anxiety,” she said.  

The solution, Dennis-Tiwary told students, is to change mindset, to prepare for painful emotions, and to practice and build skills to better cope with inevitable discomfort.

She offered “Three Ls” as a place to begin: Listen to anxiety to gather information, Leverage that information to take purposeful and meaningful action, and Let go — find time to immerse in the present.

“That’s going to gain emotional endurance,” she said. “It’s more like fitness. It’s more like something you practice. It’s more like something you build over time, little by little."

Dennis-Tiwary also took a moment to make note of when anxiety crosses into the arena of disorder, noting the four “red flags” that clinicians look out for: Dysfunction, Duration, Disproportion, and Distress.

Dennis-Tiwary is the author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad). At Hunter College, she is a professor of psychology and neuroscience, Director of the Emotion Regulation Lab, and Co-Executive Director of the Center for Health Technology. 

The final installment of the ’WICK Speaker Series is set for Tuesday April 25, at 6:30 p.m. in Baker Theater. On tap is Sleep Is Your Superpower, by Matthew Walker, Ph.D. 



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