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Coping with anxiety? Why it's actually a superpower that can make life better

Anxiety was evolved to protect us, not bring us down and disable us, author says.
/ Source: TODAY

Faced with a particularly stressful period in her career, Wendy Suzuki sought comfort in food.

She was trying to get tenure, deciding to focus all of her energy on work while avoiding friends, leisure time and exercise.

Her coping mechanism for all that tension was eating lots of takeout dinners and chocolate cake, causing Suzuki to gain 25 pounds and feel disconnected from her life. She felt so unhappy that she finally had to admit something was wrong.

“I had a wake-up call. I went on a vacation by myself because I had no friends,” Suzuki, a professor of neural science at New York University, told TODAY. She turned out to be the physically weakest person on that trip — a group river rafting adventure.

“That was the kick in the pants that I needed to first join the gym, take a look at my diet and reconnect with that desire to feel better and to look better… that was also my first wake-up call to how important social connection is to me.”

The overwhelming anxiety she felt while working too much was “a big red flashing sign” to take action to change her life, Suzuki writes in her new book, “Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion.”

The title sounds like an oxymoron, but anxiety and the stress response that underlies it was evolved to protect us, not bring us down and disable us, Suzuki noted.

“It’s an invitation to think in a different way about the ‘negative emotions’ that come with anxiety — fear, worry, anger. Those also evolved for a reason. They teach us about ourselves, our world, what we value in our lives,” she said.

“Anxiety needs to have those ‘negative emotions’ associated with it to do its job.”

That job is to nudge you in the right direction and to take action. Suzuki called it an energy activation to change something in your life, motivate you to improve your situation or alert you that it’s time to practice self-care.

It's helpful to reframe anxiety and think of it as a lesson, she said. What is it trying to show you? What can you learn from it? Each time you get through an anxious situation, it boosts your resilience — one of anxiety's "hidden superpowers," Suzuki writes.

Suzuki emphasized her advice covers everyday anxiety, not the severe kind people experience as part of clinical disorders.

When the stress gets out of control, these tools can help:

Harness the power of exercise

Most any form of exercise quickly reduces a person’s anxiety, while boosting mood, Suzuki noted.

“It is because every time you move your body, you stimulate the release of what I like to call a bubble bath of neurochemicals in your brain," she said. "Those neurochemicals include dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline, which are the basis for the better mood.”

It’s one of the most powerful ways, along with deep breathing, to cope with an anxiety-provoking situation, she added.

Try mood-boosting snacks

The gut and the brain are uniquely connected, so what you eat can have an impact on how you feel.

To help you “flip your anxiety from bad to good,” Suzuki recommended eating more vegetables, reducing the servings of protein and grains, and consuming mood-boosting snacks such as avocado toast, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and organic unsweetened yogurt with cacao nibs sprinkled on top.

Savor ‘micro flow’ moments

Suzuki defines them as “brief moments where you feel in sync with yourself” — times when calm and skill come together to make you feel good. For her, it's savasana pose at the end of a yoga class or making a tasty green smoothie in the morning.

“Everybody has things like that, but they just kind of brush over them,” Suzuki said. “They’re waiting for something to make them anxious without savoring that moment of flow.”

Change your environment

That doesn’t mean moving, though some research has found relocating to a new city seems to help people change their habits.

The goal is to make changes that allow you to leave behind old anxiety triggers. Suzuki realized how powerful it can be when she invited a feng shui expert to help her out after a particularly bad breakup.

“I was shocked, when she went around my apartment with me, at all of the things that I had on my shelves, on my wall, on my coffee tables that came from old boyfriends who are no longer in my life,” Suzuki said.

“She said, ‘Let's just clean that up and really be mindful about the things in your environment.’ I felt lighter every single time.”

Changing her home surroundings was an anxiety reducer and a calm enhancer, Suzuki recalled.

Have one appreciative thought an hour

It can be as small as how much you like the pen you’re using, Suzuki writes in her book, which covers her own anxieties.

“I am my worst critic,” Suzuki noted. “If you have all this negative stuff coming at you from the 24/7 news cycle and at the same time you are your own worst critic, you have no port of safety in your world.”

So she learned to be much gentler with herself and found it helped her to be nicer to others. It’s why she advocates for self-appreciation and acknowledging the good things you do, calling it a riff on the gratitude journal, but focused on yourself.

“It felt different when I learned how to be kinder and more generous with myself in understanding I need a break sometimes, I make mistakes sometimes, I say stupid things sometimes — so does everybody else,” she said.

“The best way to be your best for the others in your life is to have the strongest and most loving relationship with yourself.”