Good anxiety: is that even possible?

by Carolyn Thomas       @HeartSisters   

There’s anxiety, and then there’s ANXIETY.  When Dr. Wendy Suzuki wrote about anxiety recently in her Globe and Mail essay, she wasn’t talking about clinical levels of anxiety requiring medical treatment, but what she calls our everyday anxiety:  

You would think that, after 18 months, we might feel better prepared to manage the continuing effects of the pandemic, but instead, our recent history seems to have simply added to our collective anxiety.”

She views this “everyday anxiety” as a new approach to understanding anxiety.       .  

This starts with changing the definition, as she describes in her book, Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion“. Instead of the predictable cost of living in our modern world, Dr. Suzuki suggests that we think of anxiety from a historical, even an evolutionary, perspective:

“Anxiety and the physiological stress response that underlies it originally evolved to protect us.  Imagine a woman living 2.5 million years ago, when the threats and dangers that could trigger anxiety were predominantly external  (think wild animal attack).

“Back then, an unexpected crack of a twig, signalling the possibility of a nearby predator, would immediately trigger a physiological threat response accompanied by an intense feeling of anxiety, both of which increased the heart rate and respiration and shunted blood to the large muscle groups to allow the woman to fight the threat or run away (e.g. the “fight or flight” response controlled by the sympathetic nervous system).”

She adds that we are all now experiencing the equivalent of round-the-clock twig-cracking,  in the form of 24/7 news, non-stop social media doom-scrolling, and daily pandemic updates. These can act as triggers that cause near constant anxiety and stress on our nervous system.

I love that twig-cracking analogy, because I can so readily identify with that resulting “What was that? Was it something? Was it nothing?” knee jerk response.  How many times, as a freshly-diagnosed heart attack survivor, did I leap to such a reaction (almost every day, sometimes several times a day) with every bubble, squeak or chest twinge I felt?  It took weeks (maybe months?) for me to very gradually get used to those high anxiety triggers and to come to terms with the reality that these cracking twigs had not in fact killed me dead.  See also: Hypervigilance: Waiting For That Second Heart Attack

There are few things more anxiety-provoking in life than being in the middle of a frickety-fracking heart attack. I developed this theory back in 2008 while having my own.

So what can we do when we encounter the sound of cracking twigs on the path, or terrifying cardiac symptoms, or the latest public health numbers announcing yet another spike in COVID infections, or anti-mask protesters blocking ambulances and patients arriving for cancer treatment AT HOSPITALS?

Dr. Suzuki offers three helpful tips to, as she says, “transform your anxiety from ‘anchor around your neck’ to ‘protective friend’ by taking back its protective power”:

1. Practice turning down the volume.  Take a few long, deep breaths. Try some box breathing (mindfully inhale for four counts, hold at the top for four counts, exhale for four counts and hold at the bottom for four counts. Dr. Suzuki reminds us that this kind of breathing exercise  “helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, our built-in mechanism for stress and anxiety reduction. This slows breathing and  heart rate, and shunts blood from our muscles to our digestive and reproductive organs.”

I like this first tip because it can be used anytime, anywhere, including in the middle of an anxiety-provoking conversation with your anti-vax neighbours.  Also, it reminds me that the world will indeed continue to spin on its axis even if I turn off all of my devices completely and go for a long walk outdoors.

2. Explore what those uncomfortable feelings are actually telling you:  Name the feeling. Dr. Suzuki reminds us that we often hide from or minimize uncomfortable emotions and don’t consider how much they can tell us about what we need in our lives. Even this little step can dial down the intensity of the negative emotion. She recommends that it’s also a good idea to start teaching children to name the feeling, and to pay attention to what anxiety is actually signalling.

This perspective on learning what those feelings of anxiety are telling you reminds me of an OB-GYN who told me this story: she had a patient who sought help because of her uncharacteristically emotional rages against her husband, the timing always linked to her menstrual periods. The rest of the month, she was a polite, quiet “nice girl”, but for a predictable few days every month she suddenly became demanding, critical and angry around her husband – who raged right back at her, alarmed at his wife’s sudden personality change, and even  threatening divorce. 

It was only after discussing what these arguments were about (they were always about finances), that the penny dropped. The woman admitted that she had always deeply resented the fierce control her hubby held over every financial decision, but to “keep the peace”, she had always kept a tight lid on her opinions all month long, except just before her period when hormones allowed her to say what she’d been wanting to say during the rest of the month. In this case, as her doctor observed, these negative feelings were actually telling her loud and clear that her own needs were not being met. She was ultimately able to negotiate a new decision-sharing process that worked for both of them – not just for him. Yet another reason to pay closer attention to premenstrual upset. . .

3.  Explore the gifts of anxiety.    (NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   YES! She said “gifts”):  Regular readers will know exactly how I feel about this odd concept of viewing traumatic events as somehow being a “gift” from the universe to help us live life to the fullest or add meaning to an otherwise meaningless life, blahblahblah. . . 

But Dr. Suzuki believes one way that learning to cope with everyday anxiety may indeed be a gift is the gift of empathy. She shares her own personal example as a painfully shy and awkward student who was often afraid to speak up in class – but who is now a university professor with strong public speaking skills despite that history, adding: “I realized that because of this anxiety, I was unconsciously reaching out as a teacher to those same socially anxious students in my own classroom by making ample time for casual conversations before or after class. In other words, my own social anxiety helped me to develop empathy for others similar to me.”

Remember, dear reader, if you or somebody you care about lives with life-limiting anxiety, a doctor’s help might be needed. But the more we can learn to manage our everyday anxiety, the better we’ll get at managing.

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about how a cardiac diagnosis can be linked to anxiety, depression or other new-onset mental health issues in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease . You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (where you can save 20% off the list price when you order by using their code HTWN).


Image: HitaJast, Pixabay

Q:  What’s your “twig-cracking” trigger for increased anxiety in your own life?

See also:

Top 25 treatments for anxiety

My year of living COVIDly

Post-heart attack: why we feel worse before we feel better

Do you think too much? How ruminating hurts your heart

Does our narrative identity get better with age?


5 thoughts on “Good anxiety: is that even possible?

  1. Thank you Carolyn for another timely and helpful article. I’ll remember to practice the box breathing when the Covid news elevates my anxiety.

    Warm wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

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