Excerpted from Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion by Dr. Wendy Suzuki with permission from Atria. Copyright © 2022 by Wendy Suzuki, PhD.
The stress that causes anxiety is not going away, but we do have the capacity to “optimize” our response to it. Researchers including Alia Crum, a Stanford psychology professor, have shown it’s possible to approach stress as a challenge and an opportunity for performance and growth.
At the neurobiological level, what Crum and others are suggesting is part of a wider area of research and framing of the brain known as emotion regulation—the processes that help us manage all emotional responses, especially anxiety.
What does emotion regulation mean?
One expert on emotion regulation, James J. Gross, another psychology professor at Stanford University, defines emotion regulation as “the processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express them.” He also points out that regulation is a set of processes that exist on a “continuum from conscious, effortful and controlled regulation to unconscious, effortless, and automatic regulation.”
What does this mean in practice? The bottom line is this: Though anxiety might originate as some form of attention-getting signal to avoid danger, it doesn’t necessarily have to cause discomfort, distraction, or otherwise interfere with our natural drive toward well-being and balance. We can learn to use awareness to reframe a situation, remove the perception of danger, and reappraise it as an opportunity to overcome a challenge and create new responses. We have multiple options for managing both the attention to the signal and the anxiety (the feelings), and if it gets to that point, the response itself. Our brain is a wondrous thing!
Our brain-body systems are in a constant drive toward homeostasis, that state of equilibrium between arousal and relaxation. Every system—from the nervous system to the digestive—is interacting and exchanging signals in order to respond to a stressor and then re-gain homeostasis. This is true of our emotional system as well. Our negative emotions arise to draw our attention to something that may be dangerous, and then make some sort of change or adaptation to feel better. In other words, they have a positive purpose. It is the same with anxiety: it’s the brain-body’s way of telling us to pay attention. Our built-in system for managing our negative emotions, of processing, responding to, and coping with negative emotions in particular, so we can maintain or return to homeostasis is called emotion regulation.
How to regulate emotions
Anxiety is a bundle of emotions that upset our ability to emotionally regulate. And they are meant to, because they are meant to draw our attention to an area where all is not as it should be. However, our ability to regulate our emotions is not always predictable. Indeed, the degree of one’s capacity for emotion regulation varies, depending on a number of factors—how we were raised, our lifestyle, and even our genetic profile. The good news is that we can learn to regulate our emotions more effectively. According to Gross’s model of emotion regulation, we have five types of anxiety-management strategies that can help manage anxiety and other negative emotions. These are situation selection, situation modification, attention deployment, cognitive change, and response modulation. The first four can interrupt anxiety before it develops into an extreme state or a chronic one. The fifth is a regulatory technique after the anxiety (or other negative emotion) has occurred.
Let’s look at how emotion regulation plays out in real life. Say you are anticipating an important job interview after being let go from your former position six months prior. You are feeling pressure, self-doubt, and fear—fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of not measuring up. The interview is four days away but you’re already feeling nervous. When you even imagine walking through the door of the building, your hands start to sweat, your heart ticks up, and your breath becomes a tiny bit shallow. Next, you begin to imagine every possible thing that could go wrong: you might forget to bring your résumé, you might wear mismatching socks, or you might forget everything you know about why you’re applying for the job in the first place.
One option is to avoid a situation that you expect will bother you or exacerbate your anxiety. Avoiding the situation (skipping the job interview) may alleviate the fear and stress in the near term; however, it clearly will not help you if, in the long run, you want or need the job in question. Gross calls this strategy situation selection.
Another option is to modify the current situation so that the anticipation or anxiety is made more tolerable or bearable. For instance, if you’re experiencing anxiety about the pending interview, you could modify the situation by asking to do the interview over the phone or video conference. This enables you to exert some control over your anxiety and puts you more in charge of the feeling that it’s bigger than you. Gross calls this situation modification. I call it a shift from bad to good anxiety. Your nervousness has not disappeared; it’s simply under your control and being channeled.
A third option is referred to as attention deployment, which includes several ways you can avert your attention from the anxiety-provoking situation to something else that absorbs your attention. Parents use this technique frequently with their infants and toddlers. If the young child is afraid of dogs, for example, a parent could direct the child’s focus to a funny face while the scary dog walks away. This is a kind of intentional distraction.
The fourth and probably most sophisticated of the strategies for emotion regulation is referred to as cognitive change. In this case, you actively and consciously reappraise or reframe your mindset or attitude: instead of thinking about the job interview as a horrible way to spend your Friday morning, you reframe it as an opportunity to show yourself and your potential employer how much you know about the role and the company or organization; it also builds your confidence. The reframe acts as a mental suggestion that reshapes the feeling of anxiety from one of dread and feeling overwhelmed to one of excitement and challenge.
Once you’ve managed to get yourself through the front door and seated in the interview it’s possible that the anxiety will rear its head despite the strategies you used to mitigate it thus far. In this case, you are actively trying to suppress or mitigate the anxious feelings. Perhaps you do some breathwork (i.e., deep breathing, which is one of the fastest and most effective ways to calm the entire nervous system) or drink some water. If it were not a job interview that got you all keyed up but a date, you might have a beer or glass of wine to take the edge off. These are a few of the many coping strategies you can use after the anxiety is experienced.
You can learn to manage your anxiety
Current research into the interplay between anxiety and emotion regulation points to strong evidence that interventional strategies such as reappraisal can build one’s capacity for emotion regulation and positively affect anxiety; these studies have been done in the context of anxiety disorders. Specifically, neuroimaging studies have shown that negative emotions of anxiety or fear lessen in response to emotion regulation strategies. Further, neuroimaging studies have also shown that the negative emotions of anxiety or fear occur in different neural regions of the brain from where emotion regulation occurs. This area of research is in its infancy, but this is good news: We can update our emotional responses. We can learn to emotionally regulate. We can become better at managing and then channeling our anxiety.
I like to think of this approach to anxiety as a way of building our resilience to stress. Consider this: We need to both feel the feelings and update our responses to those feelings. This begins with awareness. Once you realize you get uncomfortable at any sign of anxiety, you need to stop and think about what you do with the feelings. We all need constant practice simply sitting with our feelings and not trying to immediately mask, deny, escape, or distract ourselves. By sitting with the discomfort, you do two things: you get accustomed to the feeling and realize that you can indeed “survive” it, and you give yourself time and space in your brain to make a more conscious decision about how to act or respond. This is exactly how a new, more positive neural pathway is established.
Dr. Wendy Suzuki is an award-winning professor of neural science and psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University and is the Seryl Kushner dean of NYU’s College of Arts and Science. She is a celebrated international authority on neuroplasticity, was recently named one of the top 10 women changing the way we see the world by Good Housekeeping, and regularly serves as a sought-after expert for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Shape, and Health. Her TED talk has more than 55 million views. She is the author of Good Anxiety and Healthy Brain, Happy Life.