Why some anxiety is good, even though it feels bad

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Over her 20 years as a psychologist, Tracy Dennis-Tiwary noticed something about the way people talked about anxiety.

“Whenever we think of anxiety, we think of the language of dysfunction, despair. So, we have these mindsets that anxiety is actually always a disease, or it’s some sort of a character flaw," Dennis-Tiwary says.

Anxiety disorders are very real. And can be crippling. But some anxiety is also evolutionarily advantageous.

“It’s preparing us to handle this uncertain future where something bad or good could happen, it prepares us to avert disaster, but also make our hopes into reality," Dennis-Tiwary adds.

Today, On Point: Why some anxiety is good, even though it feels bad.


Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, professor of psychology and neuroscience. Director of the Emotion Regulation Lab at Hunter College. Chief Science Officer of Wise Therapeutics, a digital health therapeutics company. Author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad) (@tracyadennis)

Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Professor in the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. Author of Permission to Feel. Co-creator of HowWeFeel, an app designed to teach emotion skills. (@marcbrackett)

Also Featured

Dana Chudy, a library assistant in Clinton Township, Michigan.

Lenette Serlo, a mom of four in Davie, Florida.


DANA CHUDY: Probably as far back as I can remember. Kindergarten, maybe. I just remember being worried all the time.

KIMBERLY ATKINS STOHR: This is Dana Chudy. She's an On Point listener in Clinton Township, Michigan.

CHUDY: Was I going to get in trouble for some little tiny thing? Was that kid next to me actually going to drink the glue as he promised to do? I remember just being terrified to go to gym class to the point where I would quote, forget my gym clothes at home. I would, you know, pretend to not be feeling well. I would do anything I could to get out of gym. I remember crying to my parents because I was so afraid that I was not going to understand how to play baseball. It was terrifying to me.

ATKINS STOHR: That feeling that she wouldn't get something right, wouldn't know something, and that something bad would happen became all too familiar to Dana. Today, she recognizes that as anxiety.

CHUDY: You can feel the adrenaline coursing through your body. Every piece of he was on high alert. You're just in complete fight or flight to deal with the issues that you're perceiving there to be.

ATKINS STOHR: During college, Dana says that anxiety pushed her to academic success that she might not have otherwise had. But Dana says it's a stressor she could have done without.

CHUDY: I understand why someone who has not experienced anxiety could say, but look where this got you, because I was successful academically. But the internal struggle that puts you through is not worth it.

ATKINS STOHR: As an adult, Dana was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD, now working as a library assistant in Clinton Township, Michigan. On Point listener Dana Chudy is one of over 40 million adults in America who struggle with an anxiety disorder. But research also finds that anxiety, the emotion, is evolutionarily advantageous and has benefits to help us thrive. So today, that's what we'll focus on.

How anxiety can be good, even though it feels bad. And we're borrowing that phrase from Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. She's a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Hunter College in New York City. She's also the author of Future Tense Why Anxiety is Good for You, even Though It Feels Bad. Tracy, welcome to On Point.

TRACY DENNIS-TIWARY: Thank you, Kimberly, It's wonderful to be with you.

ATKINS STOHR: So I want to start this discussion sort of by defining our terms, because I think a lot of Americans, particularly over the last couple of years, understand what anxiety is, myself included. But I want to differentiate between anxiety the disorder, and anxiety the emotion. And help us do that.

DENNIS-TIWARY: So, first of all, even making that distinction, that anxiety is an emotion instead of a disorder is an important step because the language of anxiety, the language we use every day, is things like, Oh, she has anxiety. Or, Oh, you're anxious, let's get rid of that as soon as possible. So it's really important to say that anxiety is an emotion and it's a specific type of an emotion. It is an emotion that is comprised of feelings and thoughts that signal that we're nervous about the uncertain future.

And I think your listener Dana really, you know, expresses some of those kinds of anxieties. It's we're sending ourselves into the future. We're using our amazing ability to imagine what's coming around the bend. And what we see there is that something bad could happen. But when you're anxious, what science has shown us is that you also believe that a good outcome is still possible, so you're not despairing. So that's the uncertain future that we're looking at when we're anxious. And this is quite distinct from fear, because fear is an emotion that gives us the information that we're facing certain and present danger.

So fear is that there's a snake about to bite us. And anxiety is the feeling that, oh, when tomorrow I'm going for a walk in the woods, I might encounter a snake. And so while anxiety can feel a lot like fear and, you know, it's that fight or flight response, anxiety is so much more. Because it's this information about the uncertain future. And it's preparing us to navigate that uncertainty by not only fight-flight protective mode, but also making us more focused, making us more persistent, innovative, even hopeful.

ATKINS STOHR: That's really interesting because as you're explaining this, I'm thinking of the times that I felt anxiety, that fight or flight instinct that you talk about. In particular ... I'm thinking of being in that moment, but I don't think I've ever thought of it as being an emotional response to thinking about the future. I just want you to talk about that a little bit more. What is it about the future that is specific to this emotion of anxiety?

DENNIS-TIWARY: It's really that uncertainty. It's that feeling that, you know, I'm imagining this conversation I'm going to have with a wonderful radio show host, you know, and I'm thinking about this tomorrow. And when you're anxious, now if I were in despair, I would say, oh, my gosh, I just can't do this. It's going to be a disaster. But when I'm anxious, I start to think about, oh, okay, well, what might she ask me? And it might be a really fun conversation and how exciting I get this opportunity. And so on the spectrum of anxiety, and all emotions, are on a spectrum. You have panic, which is at that far end of the kind of danger zone feeling, but you also have excitement.

So on the spectrum, we actually have these positive experiences. And if you actually just swap in the world excited instead of anxious, all of a sudden your mindset about this feeling starts to change and you can start to say, oh, actually anxiety is feeling bad because it's making me sit up and pay attention, taking time out of my day. To really focus on what I need to plan for and what actions I might need to take and when. When you think about emotion as an evolutionary advantage and by the way, Darwin devoted a third of his theory, when he actually laid out evolutionary theory, he devoted a third of it to emotions. It was his third book called The Expression of Emotions and Man and Animals.

And here he talks about how crucial it is to survival. So I always imagine prehistoric people maybe sitting around, you know, of a fire, maybe they've discovered fire by now and they just, you know, escape that sabertooth tiger. And maybe they found some food and they have a full belly. If they didn't have the ability to use their big prefrontal cortexes, you know, their big brains that humans evolved to have and imagine, oh, maybe when I go and find shelter tonight, I shouldn't go to that same cave where that sabertooth is ... and I'm going to kind of run the 'what if' scenarios. It takes energy to do that, precious energy. It needs to grab us. It needs to make us sit up and pay attention and move out of the present and for a moment, project ourselves into the future. And that's why anxiety has to feel bad to do its job.

ATKINS STOHR: So I want to distinguish anxiety, the emotion from other feelings. You mentioned fear. You distinguished a little bit between anxiety and fear. I think one that's tougher for people to distinguish between is stress. What's the difference between anxiety, the emotion and stress?

DENNIS-TIWARY: It's such a great question because, you know, all of us fall prey to that saying kind of using the words interchangeably. Stress is not an emotion. It's a calculation. It's a calculation of, you know, given the demands and maybe the curveballs or opportunities that the world is throwing my way, do I have the internal and personal resources to meet that challenge, to meet those demands? And when your calculation is that the demands exceed your resources, that's when we experience stress.

The interesting thing about stress, though, is that it can be both, you know, positive and negative. And under that umbrella, we experience all the emotions. So if I'm anticipating my upcoming wedding, I feel stressed about it because there's a lot of planning to doing. There's so many things to do, but there's a lot of joy. Maybe there's nervousness, maybe there's frustration. So also emotions live under this umbrella of stress.

ATKINS STOHR: And how does someone distinguish between feeling the emotion of anxiety, particularly at a time, you know, we just came out of a pandemic or looking at economic uncertainty ahead? How do we distinguish from the emotion of anxiety, which, as you've explained, we need and can be a positive force from an anxiety disorder?

DENNIS-TIWARY: When we experience anxiety, we might experience it frequently. We might experience it even sometimes quite intensely. And perhaps, you know, maybe over a course of a month there'll be a lot of anxiety in our lives or even longer. But we will not be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. At least we shouldn't be unless there's functional impairment. That is that the way we're coping with that anxiety is getting in the way of living a full life, of working, of studying, of living, of loving, of doing all these things we need to do.

So, for example, if I'm a person who has some social anxieties where I fear that I'll be perhaps humiliated in public, I'll embarrass myself, I won't be able to rise to the challenge. I could be socially anxious and still, you know, push through and figure out ways to cope and manage quite well. But if I start avoiding going to work, missing deadlines, if I'm a child and I start to refuse to go to school, if I turn down opportunities that are coming my way, cut off from my friends, if I'm using this avoidance as a way of coping with that feeling and it's starting to get in the way of my life, that's when we would be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

ATKINS STOHR: How should we be thinking differently about anxiety ... knowing the difference between those two things when we feel that emotion inside of us? Should we think about it differently?

DENNIS-TIWARY: I think we need to think about it as an ally that we need to negotiate with because allies don't just do whatever you want. You have to work with them. Or like that best friend that you never wanted to have. But they always tell you the truth and they're actually there to help you in the long run. ... What that does is that allows us to engage with anxiety and to know that anxiety is a wave. That we can build skills, we can learn to swim, we can learn to surf, we can learn to, you know, the boat set sail on this wave. And the mental health is not the absence of emotional discomfort. It's the ability to work through that discomfort.

ATKINS STOHR: Lenette Serlo is a mom of four from Davie, Florida, and she shared with us her experience of how anxiety actually helped her.

LENETTE SERLO: It was a long time ago, but I can put myself back in that space very easily. And, you know, I'm sitting there in a room and I'm one of the youngest people in the room. And I'm aware that this quitting drinking doesn't work for a lot of people.

ATKINS STOHR: Back in her twenties, Lenette regularly struggled to arrive at work on time. Her boss told her that if she wants to keep her job, she should seek help. Lenette saw a therapist who helped her understand how big a problem her drinking had become. That's when she joined a 12-step program. Those meetings were terrifying.

SERLO: I would get this feeling inside me like a physical, fluttery butterflies in the belly kind of feeling. And when that happened? Something inside me knew you have to raise your hand and share. And I didn't want to raise my hand and share because I'm shy by nature. I do have a lot of anxiety, but like, I just knew I had to do it. And so this, you know, I just remember so clearly. My hand goes up and I'm like, Oh, no, they're going to call on me and I'm going to have to speak. And, you know, when I was done, I always felt so much relief and I always was glad I did it. I never regretted it.

ATKINS STOHR:  So what was it about that feeling that made her decide that she had to take that next step? Lenette says while the idea of sharing in a social setting might give some people the butterflies for her, there was an even greater anxiety about what would happen if she didn't do anything about her addiction.

SERLO: I wasn't concerned about what are they going to think of me? Which is interesting because in normal life I'm always worried about what everyone's going to think of me. I felt like that wasn't part of it. It was, I have to do this. This is a scary thing to do. And if I keep my mouth shut, this whole process of healing isn't going to work.

ATKINS STOHR: Lenette, who's now in her fifties, has been sober for three decades. So what did that experience teach her about how to make use of her anxiety?

SERLO: One of the things that's taught me over time is that when I get that feeling, that anxiety comes to me. It's not like, okay, go run for your blanket and cuddle up in your bed. It's you need to do whatever is in front of you.

ATKINS STOHR: So, Tracy, up to now, we've been talking a lot about the evolutionary purpose of anxiety, the emotion. So now I want to spend a little bit of time talking about what actually happens to us when we experience that emotion, what happens to us physically? What has science taught us about that?

DENNIS-TIWARY: We know from decades of science that, as we could all attest to, when we're anxious, we do feel that fight or flight response, our sympathetic nervous system goes into high gear. You know, every emotion gives us information about the world. And of course, with anxiety, it's about uncertainty. And then with that information, emotions prepare us to act.

So with the fight or flight response, the threat detection and response system of our brains on high alert, the vigilance, all of that is happening and it's preparing us to protect ourselves. But there's this whole other aspect of anxiety that we scientists, because we're also, of course, human beings have really just started to build an evidence based around just started to ask these questions about, well, are there ways that actually anxiety can propel us forward as as not just protective, but productive?

So more recent evidence has come out to show that, especially when we've shifted our mindset like Linette has, that that this this this feeling of activation is not necessarily dangerous but actually might be our body preparing to perform and to do what it needs to do. When we shift our mindset, we can actually start to see and the biology supports this, that when we're anxious, we for example, have increases in oxytocin, which is the social bonding hormone.

This is a hormone that increases when we're with our loved ones, but it also primes us to seek out those connections. And of course, social connections. Social support is one of the best ways to manage anxiety and to figure out what to, you know, how to really cope with it and what to do with this emotion when we're anxious. We also see that especially and again, I'm talking about for the most part, you know, moderate levels of anxiety. I'm not talking about a full-blown anxiety disorder.

And to, you know, to say that, oh, yeah, we should just, you know, go to that extreme. But. But what evidence shows is that when we have moderate levels of anxiety, we also find that dopamine is spiking in our brain. This neurotransmitter that allows areas of our brain to efficiently communicate with each other so that we can pursue goals. And we also see that anxiety when it's induced in us.

ATKINS STOHR: Well, I want to add another voice to this conversation. Joining us now is Marc Brackett. He's the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Studies Center at the Yale School of Medicine. Marc, welcome to On Point.

MARC BRACKETT: Thank you. It's great to be here.

ATKINS STOHR: So I want you first to talk about this idea of good anxiety and how you've experienced that yourself and just sort of reacting to our conversation so far.

BRACKETT: I think what's important about what Tracy has been talking about is that we as a society oftentimes think of emotions as good or bad. Right? Happy as good. Sad is bad, right? Content is good. Anxiety, stress, overwhelm is bad. And I think from our perspective, which is similar to Tracy's, emotions are information, they are data. They ensure survival, as you heard. They help us make informed decisions. They help us build and maintain healthy relationships.

And so from our perspective, getting granular about how you feel is super important. And you've talked about lots of different terms thus far. Anxiety, stress, fear, overwhelm. And the way I like to think about it is that when you have precise words to describe your feelings and you have a good definition of that concept, it gives you the information for what to do with that feeling.

I just want to say, for example, if my brain is perceiving uncertainty around the future like we felt for the last three years, how I deal with that feeling will be different than when I am experiencing stress, where I have too many demands and not enough resources, or I'm feeling fearful. You know, there's a perceived threat or danger. And so in that way, again, there's no good or bad emotions. If we can learn how to use our feelings wisely, we can achieve all of our dreams.

ATKINS STOHR: And use our feelings wisely. I think that is a key here. So how do we keep it in perspective? Meaning, how do we keep from making this anxiety about what's out of our control and what's this uncertainty about the future feel bigger than it is? You know, if in the face of some sort of challenge.

BRACKETT: Well, I'll give you my own example, because I feel like I have to, you know, practice what I preach. You know, back when the pandemic first hit, you know, our universities shut down. We're all working in remote fashion. You know, we're using Windex to, you know, clean our groceries. There was a lot of uncertainty around. And, you know, there came a point where I was thinking to myself, All right, Marc. Like, how much control do you have over this? Not very much.

BRACKETT: So how useful is it for you to sit around all day, you know, ruminating, you know, about this? It's not that useful. And so given that, I didn't have much control about it, but I was yet wasting, you know, a significant amount of time heightening my anxiety. I realized I needed another approach. That's the idea of using emotions wisely. It was like ... the anxiety is important. I do want to stay safe. I want to be careful, I want to keep my mask on, etc. But it's not useful to ruminate all day. And so what's the alternative? You know, there's things like positive self-talk or reappraisal or reframing. And I think that's where society has, you know, fallen short in terms of educating people that people just don't even know these strategies exist, nor how to apply them to themselves.

ATKINS STOHR: Tracy, I want you to talk about that, too. How do you help people think about anxiety and how to react to it differently? I mean, I'm thinking of myself during the pandemic. You know, there were times that I had a cabinet full of toilet paper, and I felt better about that. But then on the flip side, there was, you know, after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, I didn't go running for like three months just because even though I knew logically I would be fine, it was just difficult to get out the door and do that. What do you say to people who are dealing with that type of anxiety? How do you turn that into positive action?

DENNIS-TIWARY: It's an eye opener, and I agree wholeheartedly with Marc as well. And, you know, we have these heartbreaking, horrible things. That happened to us in life and anxiety is going to be inevitable. So we actually have no choice but to build skills in as Marc says, as you know, using it as information and figuring out how to, you know, how to funnel it, how to channel it into something useful. I think, you know, I think about this process and it is a skill building process. We mental health professionals, I think, need to take a serious moment and think about where we've failed people because we've started to convince people that mental health is sort of the state that you achieve.

That as Mark was saying, it's you have good feelings and that means you have mental health. And really what we need to accept the way it's the only way out is through that we can engage these emotions and they're not going to destroy us. They're not dangerous. We can build skills in them. So I think about that process of building skills and also shifting our mindset that emotions can be an advantage as we take I kind of think of them as three L's that you build skills with listening to these emotions, leveraging and then letting go.

When we go right to suppression, right to avoidance, it's amplifies every feeling we have and it's an opportunity cost to learn how to cope. So we have these very valid fears, valid anxieties, these valid feelings. Let's take a moment and get radical and just allow them to be abide with these feelings, with our children's feelings when we see them in our kids, which is so scary. All of us parents go through that and to guilt, get these skills and being curious and open to these emotional experiences, knowing that negative emotions do not equal bad.

And so that is a crucial first step. And then with that information, we can start to figure out what can we control, what can't we? How can I take actions that can make my life better, the lives of others around me better? And we can start to leverage leverage that anxiety to purpose and to meaningful action, and then let go and use all the skills at our disposal, everything from seeing our therapist, our spiritual advisor to taking a run. Because exercise is an amazing way to come back to the present moment when anxiety is sending us into the future tense. I love to write poetry. It's bad poetry, it's terrible, but I love to let my mind work in a different way that allows me to immerse myself in in the present moment. And so we can build these skills to listen, leverage and then let go.

ATKINS STOHR: I know a lot of our listeners are probably seeing anxiety in their children. What should they be doing to help them or others loved ones themselves deal with anxiety, particularly children? You know, how do you give them the tools?

BRACKETT: Yeah, it's a great question. A couple of things. You know, the one thing that I'm thinking about, you know, especially with children, you know, there was a recent article about doctors should be screening children as young as eight years old, you know, for anxiety and teenagers for depression. And a colleague and I were talking about this and we said maybe we need to screen the adults who are raising and teaching kids, because I think we fail to recognize that children, you know, absorb what's in their environment.

And so I just want to say upfront that adults who are raising and teaching children how to be role models, you know, I didn't grow up with a role model in that space. My mother had tremendous anxiety, but her anxiety was always, you know, she didn't know how to use it wisely. So she would kind of run around saying, I'm having a breakdown, I can't take it anymore. And so I learned very quickly as a child who was anxious. You know, I'm not going to talk to my mom, you know, about my anxiety because she'll have a breakdown.

And so, you know, that was not a great start, you know, for my career, although it did motivate me to want to become a psychologist. And so first is, you know, adults being role models. And I say role models in that we have to make it safe for adults to talk about their feelings of worry or stress or anxiety. We just have to do it in a way that doesn't make our kids feel like they have to take care of us. And that's where, you know, demonstrating those strategies is so important.

So, for example, when I was highly anxious in the beginning of the pandemic and decided, you know, probably my entire team is anxious, so I might as well just be transparent about it, you know, and then share what I'm doing about it. So as Tracy said, I used to say, you know, I'm not letting myself just go down that rabbit hole. I'm taking my walks every day, you know, not watching the news that's going to make my brain just go out of control. Like I'm demonstrating that I can have the feeling that I have strategies to deal with, the feeling I can still be a leader. And I think the same thing applies to parents.

The parents have to be able to have those comfortable conversations. By way of example, I was just working with teenagers yesterday in a high school and, you know, I talk about this idea of permission to feel and they said to me, you know. I get it, but I can't do it. And I said, Why is that? They said, Because vulnerability in our environment is a risk because people will think you're weak and they will judge you. And so when I say there is that, not only do we have to teach the language and the strategies, but we've got to figure out a way to change the culture and climate of our schools, of our government, so that we're not creating conditions where children feel these strong, unpleasant feelings.

ATKINS STOHR: On Point listener Lenette Serlo, who we heard from earlier, also shared a story about how her 13-year-old son recently coped with anxiety. He has asthma, and so when he feels anxious, he often has trouble breathing.

SERLO: Something had happened and he was feeling really anxious. And so he went into his room and he closed the door. And then a couple of minutes later, my husband came in to check on him and he was like, All better. And my husband said, Well, what did you do? And he said, Well, dad, I just closed my eyes and I imagined that I was shifting down a gear and then down another gear and then down another gear. And he made it work for him in a way that he could remember how to shift down his gears and, you know, get his chest back to normal breathing.

ATKINS STOHR: Marc, I want you to react to that story and also tell us about the work that you're doing with your students.

BRACKETT: Sure. I mean, I think, you know, what's important about this work is that from, you know, students from a very young age start thinking that their feelings are a burden to other people. ... I was in a school recently and this kindergartner literally said to me, you know, I don't want to talk about my feelings because I don't want to bother people. And so creating the conditions where kids feel safe and comfortable to talk about their feelings is really important. And having those strategies, you know, one of the things that we do in RULER, which is the name of our approach to social emotional learning, and now in this new app that I have co-created called HowWeFeel is trying to get people to be more granular. I want to give you one example.

So I teach at Yale and the I was teaching a course a couple of years ago, and the number one word when I asked them how they felt was stressed. And it just said, you know, I want to go deeper. And so I had them unpack their stress and then write about the things that were making them stressed. And lo and behold, what I learned was, It wasn't stress as we would define it. What they were really feeling was envy. They were looking around at their peers saying, This one is richer, this one is more connected, this one has greater opportunity. This one studies less and gets better grades.

And so when I brought that back to the students, I asked them, So what do we do with that information? How do we deal now with envy, you know, as opposed to stress? And do you see how critical that is? Because the strategies that we're going to use to support ourselves in having greater well-being are going to vary as a function of the specific feeling we're experiencing. But these terms are just thrown out in society now and our misused quite a bit.

ATKINS STOHR: And, Tracy, I want to talk to you, too, because it's not just young people and children that we have to be able to talk to, but also other adults sometimes. And that can be hard too. I know when I feel anxious, it's often very difficult to talk about because among other things, I'm not sure that somebody else could possibly understand the way that I'm feeling. So how do adults talk to each other about this?

DENNIS-TIWARY: I think that this is where it's really crucial that we start to shift our mindset about these difficult emotions. And I just love, by the way, Lenette and her stories. I just love them because it's so clear that she has been a role model for her son about how to, you know, maybe he needed to take a moment, maybe he wasn't ready to talk about it. But he knew that he wasn't fragile. He wasn't like a china teacup that ... you drop the teacup and it smashes into a million pieces and you can never put it back together again.

He's developed this idea of this really about being antifragile, this idea that Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile, coined this idea that actually we can grow stronger through challenge and strain and we can develop skills. It's like our immune systems are antifragile. We need to throw germs at them. Our muscles are antifragile. We need to strain and stress them to build up muscle or they atrophy. And similarly, emotions are antifragile. So when we start to realize that, by going through anxiety, anxiety doesn't grow stronger. We do. I think that will open up a lot more opportunities for us to feel free and open to talking with others.

And I think that young people, as much as we malign Gen Z and we malign millennials, I think they're just powerhouses. I think they're ready to communicate about these difficult emotions. They they're ready to overcome the stigma. But we're giving them the wrong language. We're giving them this mindset that they're fragile and we need to really scaffold them into believing that they're antifragile.

ATKINS STOHR: So, Tracy, you hit on this a little bit earlier about how to cope with these feelings, how to use them with the three L's. Can you talk a little bit more about that and the 2013 study that looked into how to make that mindset shift?

DENNIS-TIWARY: What we can do with anxiety, how to shift our mindset, really that the key operative word is mindset. A mindset is what we believe and expect about an experience and then what we habitually do with it. There was this great study that came out of Harvard in 2013, Jamieson and colleagues, and it's simply been replicated with adults and with teenagers. And in this study they brought in not just, you know, the worried, or kind of anxious people who have day to day anxieties. They actually invited people diagnosed with social anxiety disorder into the lab, and then they proceeded to have them do what was essentially kryptonite for them, social anxiety disorders characterized by a fear of humiliation, of judgment, of being embarrassed in public.

And they asked these folks to give a public speech in front of a panel of judges without any preparation. This is called the trigger social stress test. And it's really, it's kind of a torture session. But you did something fascinating. For half of the people, they did what essentially was a mindset reset for them. They helped them rethink the upcoming experience in terms of anxiety and the stress and those feelings being an advantage. And they told them, okay, your heart's going to race you in a sweat. You're going to maybe feel like you're going to throw up. You might be panicking, but this is not you getting ready to fall apart. This is your body preparing to perform at its peak.

So your heart's racing because it's sending oxygen to your brain. You can think more clearly in focus. And here's some evidence and some studies and some scientists who give credence to that. And oh, by the way, Darwin wrote all about emotions in evolutionary theory. So they spent time teaching people to just in this moment, rethink what they were about to experience. And the other half of the group, they did not give this mindset reset and what do you know? And they observe them doing, they did make them do it.

They then, when they observe them doing the speech, their performance was better. So they were more confident, they had fewer ums and their biology had changed. Their heart rates were lower and their blood pressure was lower. And so from just this micro intervention, what you see is that by expecting different things or interpreting and having a different mindset about our anxiety, we can change even on the biological level and start to gain those skills to leverage it to our advantage.

ATKINS STOHR: Marc, you mentioned RULER a little earlier on. Can you explain to us what that is and how that can help be a part of this mindset change?

BRACKETT: Yeah, So RULER is an evidence-based approach to social emotional learning. I'm proud to say that we're now at about 4,500 schools across the United States and in many other countries. And it's a preschool to high school solution to teach children and the adults in schools and outside of school the skills of emotional intelligence. So RULER is an acronym. And taking anxiety. You know, as our case study today, we want to recognize that anxiety in ourselves and other people. We want to understand where that's coming from. We want to label it with precise words.

Is it anxiety? Is it overwhelm? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it frustration? So that's the R, the U and the L. Which is all about essentially building self-awareness and social awareness about our feelings. And then E and the R has to do with expressing emotions, knowing how and when to express emotions with different people across cultures and contexts. So the rules are different, for example, in South Korea than they might be here on the East Coast. And then finally, the big one, which is the regulation. So one of the strategies that I use to support myself and coach regulate and help other people to manage their feelings. And we've talked a lot about those today.

There's the cognitive strategies. There's the mindfulness strategies. There's the social support strategies. There's the exercise strategies. And one of the things that we feel very strongly about. We call these different buckets of strategies is ensuring that children and adults have lots of strategies in the different buckets because the way we can handle our feelings well will vary.

You know, for example, right now I'm doing a recording and so if I got really anxious right now, I can go for a run. I'm going to say, Marc, you can do this, get through this mark. Whereas, you know, when I go when I'm done with this, maybe I'll go for a walk and ruminate about how was it and I won't do it. But my point here is that different strategies work in different contexts. And so giving people the opportunity to learn these strategies and apply them in different settings is what our work is all about.

ATKINS STOHR: You know, as we're having this conversation, I'm thinking about, you know, we're talking about emotional intelligence, which I think most people understand, but it's not stressed as much as intellectual intelligence or, you know, the ability to get a lot done or productive productivity. But as I'm thinking about the good leaders who I know, good bosses that I've had, editors, producers, they are people who not only are good at, you know, leading others, but they also have very good emotional intelligence so that they can connect with people on that level, too.

So it makes me think emotional intelligence is not just something that is necessary to build as somebody with anxiety, but as somebody who may encounter other people with anxiety.

DENNIS-TIWARY: I love that, Kim. I think there is this quote attributed to Richard Feynman. I don't know if he really said it, but he essentially was talking about intelligence broadly. He said intelligence is not the acquisition of knowledge. It's the ability to navigate uncertainty ... and it's how you behave when you don't know the answer. And I think that's when we're being emotionally intelligent with ourselves and with others in our lives to just know that, you know, we're not broken when we feel these emotions. My friends aren't broken. It's really if anything, they're doing the messy work of being human. And we can support each other in that. So I think you're just spot on. I think emotional intelligence is all about that and how we handle the curveballs that life will be sending our way.

ATKINS STOHR: And Marc, just continue on with that. How should all of us, even those of us who don't really struggle with anxiety or don't think we do to a large extent, what can we learn from your work and Tracy's work in this conversation?

BRACKETT: Yeah, I appreciate everything that we've been talking about. You know, for me, it starts with this concept of permission to feel that I believe we have grown up in a society where feelings, especially the unpleasant ones, are viewed as being weak, that you're inferior if you experience those feelings. And so for me, it's getting people to understand. I hereby grant everyone listening the permission to be their true, full feelings selves. I think that that's core to the work. That's that mindset piece that Tracy was talking about.

Then we have to become curious, explore, as I call it, being an emotion scientist versus an emotion Judge. So how do we become curious explorers of those feelings? How do we get granular and specific about our experiences and then we can develop those skills? And importantly, you can't develop the skills by yourself. Right. We are social creatures. And so, you know, going for therapy, which can be very helpful.

And it helped me in my life, you'll even get stronger benefits if everyone's going for therapy, which I know that won't happen. But if we can get classrooms to take this work seriously, if we can get teachers in their faculty room to take this work seriously, we can get leaders, as we've been talking about, to be role models for them being emotionally intelligent leaders. And then we create communities where everyone has the same language and is practicing the same skills.

Related Reading

Wall Street Journal: "In Praise of Anxiety" — "Nobody likes to feel anxious. Anxiety is among the most pervasive and reviled of human emotions. An entire industry has sprung up to aid us in eradicating it, from self-help books and holistic remedies to pharmaceuticals and cutting-edge cognitive behavioral therapy. Yet we are an ever more profoundly anxious society."

EducationWeek: "‘There’s No Such Thing as Bad Emotions’ and Other Truths Students Need to Know" — "Most people want to be more emotionally intelligent, but how do we do that? I use the acronym RULER to talk about five essential skills. The first R is recognizing emotions in myself and others. That’s paying attention to my physiology, to where my brain is taking me. It’s paying attention to your facial expressions, vocal tone, body language—trying to make meaning out of that."

This program aired on January 26, 2023.


Headshot of Jonathan Chang

Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


Headshot of Kimberly Atkins Stohr

Kimberly Atkins Stohr Guest Host, On Point
Kimberly Atkins is a senior opinion writer and columnist for Boston Globe Opinion. She's also a frequent guest host for On Point. She formerly was a senior news correspondent for WBUR.



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