Learn to Transform Your Response
By Kristin Withrow, CSDA Communications Specialist
Foreboding. Angst. Apprehension. These are all synonyms for anxiety, which the Oxford dictionary defines as “the state of feeling nervous or worried that something bad is going to happen.” As defined, anxiety is a feeling every human on the planet experiences. Such a common emotion, yet according to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder some time if their lives. The list of clinically defined disorders is long, including post-traumatic stress, panic, generalized anxiety or social anxiety, and specific phobias. Clinically diagnosed anxiety disorders require professional care and treatment.
But what about the everyday anxiety that people deal with every day. The anxiety that comes from due dates stacking up, financial worries, social commitments, speaking in public, clutter – the list of anxiety- inducing situations is endless and variable. We each have our triggers and methods for tamping down the anxiety. How we deal with anxiety has deep effects on our personal and professional lives.
In an exploration of this topic, California Special Districts Association is featuring Dr. Wendy Suzuki at the Annual Conference and Exhibitors Showcase in Palm Desert this August. Dr. Suzuki is a professor of neural science and psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University. At the conference, she will discuss the effects of “everyday anxiety” on the brain. Her most recent book, Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, introduces the idea of anxiety as a possible motivator for action and change in our lives. She explores the science behind the transformation occurring in an anxious brain and the steps to change from an anxious mind to a more balanced mind. And she busts that myth that the adult brain can’t change. Science has proven the brain does respond to changes in our lifestyle and outlook.
Americans tend to view anxiety as a purely negative emotion. We push it away or find coping mechanisms to ignore it. But anxiety is the catalyst for an extremely necessary component of functional life: resilience. According to Dr. Suzuki, building resilience provides a “stress inoculation.”
Yet simply telling someone to be resilient is as helpful as saying “get over it” in an argument. It isn’t helpful at all. It might even inflame the situation. That doesn’t make resilience inaccessible, it just means you need the tools to create that resilience. You can literally transform your brain’s plasticity, or flexibility, to be more resilient and less prone to anxiety that rages out of control.
Dr. Suzuki outlines three phases to progress in stressful moments that drive anxiety. To build your stress inoculation, you’ll need to consider and take action Before, During, and After to adapt your response.
Before involves acknowledging things that cause you stress. By facing the reality that certain situations cause you stress and being willing to acknowledge them, you can plan a strategy for those inevitable moments. Seek mentors whose attitudes you aspire to. It may be a co-worker, relative or friend, or someone you know of, such as the Dalai Lama. Ask yourself “who do you want to be” in your response to those moments, and plan ahead. Find a deep breathing method that works for you and practice it in your calm moments to use when you are in a stress mode.
During involves activating your desired attitude. If you are working with a difficult coworker or handling a customer who is upset, start by finding a connection point. Acknowledging their emotion “I hear you” “we both want to find a way to make this situation better” are statements that can set common ground.
After involves decompressing. To drain adrenaline and feel calm, you need to switch out of your fight or flight mode and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This is your “rest and digest” mode. This is when your deep breathing practice is helpful. Another option may be to take a break: walking for 10 minutes has been clinically shown to decrease anxiety and depression.
Dr. Suzuki defines six benefits of anxiety in her book. She calls these the superpowers of anxiety. Understanding the superpowers will allow you to reap the benefits of anxiety, including building the resilience we need for everyday anxiety. Transforming your relationship to anxiety includes transforming your perception of yourself as someone who is capable of success.
“This lens through which we interpret and process our experience and, most important, our belief in our own competence is called mindset,” said Dr. Suzuki. “An important part of being able to “flip” one’s experience of anxiety from all negative to something neutral or even positive relies on a conscious decision to do so. I refer to this conscious choice as an activist mindset.”
Dr. Suzuki will explore these ideas with the audience at the Annual Conference. The steps she outlines to achieve a growth mindset in which you perceive “failure” as a learning tool, or a re-route, include:
- Identify when your inner voice says you’ve hit a limit
- Choose to listen to the voice OR recognize you have control over your response
- Actively talk back to the negative, limiting voice -- be affirmative to yourself, attitude of ‘I’ll try another tactic and know I’ll find a way’
- Choose a new route and take action
Her CSDA Annual Conference keynote presentation will be an interactive exploration of the audience’s anxiety response and a demonstration of useful ways to dispel anxiety and begin to transform to a positive outlook. Good Anxiety includes actionable tips to “calm, flip, and channel your anxiety,” including self-evaluation quizzes, strategies for self-soothing in positive ways, tools to evaluate your emotion regulation, ways to fuel your brain and hack your sleep. Lastly, the science of smiling: where deep breathing helps calm your stress response, even a fake smile has been proven to calm the body away from a ‘fight or flight’ response and toward a ‘rest and digest’ response in your nervous system.
Learning to harness your anxiety as a positive force in your life may include reading the book (or listening to the audible version that is performed by Dr. Suzuki personally) and starting with a smile.