Anxiety can feel like a heavy weight that we didn’t ask to carry. Who wouldn’t love to get rid of it?
If we simply anxiety 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. 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. The key is to be aware of anxiety and what triggers it in the first place – understand it don’t just run from it.
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. 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, which 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. 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, social media, all of these things are perceived as threats and cause for worry, fear, and anxiety.
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, health and 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.
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 breath work is doing.
The second 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.
Simple to advise but the work is putting these two simple practices into action each day. So use that “good” anxiety – 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, 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. 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 understanding and wisdom 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.
Peace and Love, Jim