Dr Tracy Dennis-Tiwary on how we can own anxiety ‘so that it doesn’t own us’

Virgin Radio

3 May 2022, 11:29

Dr Tracy Dennis-Tiwary and her new book Future Tense

Credit: Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary

Dr Tracy Dennis-Tiwary joined the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with Sky to talk about her new book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You (Even Though it Feels Bad).

Dr Tracy’s first book is out today in paperback. In it, she confronts our misunderstanding of anxiety and presents a new framework for reclaiming it as an advantage. She told Chris: “Anxiety is this feeling about the future, it’s nervous apprehension about the uncertain future. So, if it’s uncertain, that means something bad could happen, but that means something good could happen too. So, anxiety lives right in that space between where we are now and where we want to be, and that’s the creative space, that’s the space of possibility.” 

The Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at The City University of New York continued: “We equate it with fear, but fear is certain danger. We know when we’re fearful, that there’s a knife being held to our throat, there’s a snake about to strike, so it actually roots us in the present, whereas anxiety actually makes us into time-travellers. It projects us into the future, where anything is possible and it prepares us to actually make those good outcomes into reality. And that’s something that we really haven’t equated with anxiety in our dialogues about anxiety.

“But with anxiety, it does all of these other biological things that science is only starting to understand. So, for example, anxiety triggers more oxytocin in our bodies, and oxytocin is the social bonding hormone. That makes us actually want to reach out to others, and what’s one of the best ways to help with anxiety? Social support.

“So, it’s almost like there is this fractal beauty where anxiety within itself contains a solution.”

Tracy - who is also the Director of the Stress, Anxiety, and Resilience Research Centre, as well as the Co-Executive Director of the Centre for Health Technology at Hunter College - further defined anxiety, saying: “It’s those butterflies in the stomach, it’s that racing heart, but one thing we do forget is that anxiety is on a spectrum, so it’s not just this full-blown panic. It’s not just this dangerous feeling. It’s that little tingle, it’s following our gut instinct when we know something’s not quite right, and I think we should listen to anxiety like we do our instincts. I think we revile it so much, we fear it so much, that we’re losing this crucial source of information about things that are important to us, what we care about, our gut instinct about the future.” 

The new book deals with the notion that anxiety is something that needs to be squashed, when that’s not necessarily the case. Tracy explained: “We always feel like we feel anxiety, just a little bit, and we have to immediately suppress it or handle it, like it’s something to be handled. And what I’m trying to argue for is that, yes, first of all there are anxiety disorders and they cause incredible suffering, and I never want to minimise that, but when we have just a little bit of anxiety, or we have these ups and downs, these peaks and troughs, I think that’s the time we try to listen to it, because anxiety tells us something important. So, you wake up at 5am, there are these worries going through your head, if it’s about work, if it’s about relationships, that’s your anxiety telling you that there’s something to attend to, that there’s something that you care about that you can work on.”

She continued: “One thing that I think is very useful, and it’s an experiment that you can do with yourself, is you have those anxious feelings, and you make a plan. You say, ‘Well, I’m worrying about work. This is going through my head. Okay, when I get up... it’s 4am now... but when I’m awake I’m going to take this action. I know that I’m having this problem with my colleague and I’ve let it go for a month… I’m having this thing that’s been behind deadline, I’ve been procrastinating, I’m making a plan to do it.’ And writing it down, making that intention, your anxiety goes down. It’s like a signal, you’re on the right track.

“So when you listen to anxiety rise, when you listen to it fall, you get this information that you're doing, perhaps, a really good thing for your life.”

Tracy added: “I’m not here saying, ‘Hey just change your mind about anxiety, it’s going to be easy,’ but I think there are ways to break it down so that now instead of running from it, or feeling there’s something wrong, we can start to own it, so that it doesn’t own us.”

When Chris asked what the doctor can say to people who are feeling anxious today, she replied: “Anxiety sucks. I’m not going to tell you to like it, I’m not going to tell you to love it, but would ask people to give it a listen, honour it, and know that it’s part of you, and like any messy part of us, any sort of vulnerability is also a huge source of strength, and possibility, and grit and creatively.”

Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad) is out today.

For more great interviews listen to  The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with Sky, weekdays from 6:30am on Virgin Radio, or  catch up on-demand here.