From the time we are kids, we are taught that anxiety is dangerous and that the solution to its pain is to eradicate it like we do any disease—prevent it, avoid it, and stamp it out at all costs. Yet cutting-edge therapies, hundreds of self-help books, and medications have failed to keep anxiety at bay. A third of us will struggle with anxiety disorders in our lifetime and rates in children and adults continue to skyrocket.
But are we thinking about anxiety all wrong? Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary thinks so and joins us for a wide-ranging discussion on how anxiety can become a superpower in one’s career. In this episode, we dive into her brilliant book, “Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Thought It Feels Bad).” If you struggle with anxiety in a professional setting, in your relationships, or even in parenting your kids, this episode will help you think differently about stress. The only thing you should do faster than listen to this episode is head to Amazon to buy her book with more “aha moments” than Frank’s time learning from Ian’s greatness at NVR.
Buy the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B09GRLT7ZY/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad)
An Interview With Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary On Her Book “Future Tense”
We are going to talk about why we have a guest, which is rare. Our readers will know that but you’ve got to be pretty special to be a guest on this show and get us to do more than twenty minutes of half-ass internet research to prepare. Both Frank and I read an entire book and spent two hours preparing for this. We’ve got something special for everyone, don’t we, Frankie?
We are excited.
We have with us Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, PhD, Professor of Psychology Neuroscience at Hunter College. She also directs the Emotion Regulation Lab and is a Cofounder of the digital therapeutics company, Wise Therapeutics. She is a startup Founder right in the mix. She’s a writer. She’s got all kinds of degrees. She’s done published in New York Times, Washington Post, and CBS. We had to snow her to think that we had a real show to get her to come on because she is a special guest. Welcome, Tracy.
It’s great to be with you, guys.
The main reason why we asked Tracy to come onto our show is her book. She wrote a book which is Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though it Feels Bad). I heard Tracy on another podcast. When you write a book, you go on as many podcasts as you can to get the word out there. I thought to myself, “This is a fascinating topic.” It’s not only because in my career, but I’ve also had to deal with anxiety over and over, and I’m still dealing with it regularly. My kids deal with it.
It’s tough being a kid. It is stressful, so I’m always talking to them about anxiety. We will get into that at some point. I have been talking to one of them wrong about anxiety. The good doctor could do some coaching but this is how I was introduced. I bought the book, read it, and said, “Frankie, we have to have her on.” We are lucky that you came on. Thank you.
Thanks so much. I’m grateful to be with you, guys.
Frank realizes that Tracy is much like Frankie’s wife in more ways than one, from our prep.
My wife is a Professor at the University of Richmond. She teaches Spanish and Linguistics. She got her PhD from Georgetown. In the time it took Ian and me to get a couple of hangovers in college, she ended up with an undergrad in Master’s. It’s incredible. I will start with a quick story. I told her that we were doing this show, and she was going through the peer review process. Do you want to explain what the peer review process is?
It’s a form of masochism that we all subject ourselves to in science to serve the greater good, which is to get great science out there. We, scientists, in a given field, for free, agree to review other people’s science so that it’s held to a certain standard. We see if there are any problems, help people improve it or say it’s not fit to be printed.
My wife works on this a bunch because she requires it to be published enough at her university. This is a big thing.
It’s an honor to be a peer reviewer, although it’s a bit of a con to get us all to do all this work for free. That’s a different conversation but it’s a wonderful system. It’s the community of science but it can be brutal. You get those reviewers who you know are out for blood and not necessarily out to make the science better.
My wife wrote an article, she submitted it and then I will, “What are you up to?” She goes, “I’m in the peer review process.” I go, “I don’t know this language. Tell me what you mean.” She goes, “I have to do that dance, telling a manuscript reviewer that I appreciate all their incredible insights. My manuscript will be much improved now that I have incorporated their suggestions when in reality, what I think is they are self-important, agenda-pushing, and a careless reader who has missed the point together. What I want to say is, ‘F you.’ My article is a Franken-study where your suggestions are add-ons and track from my main point.”
Where it becomes fun is that in your response to the editor and the reviewers, you can have coded language that essentially says that so that you can be passive-aggressive and polite but you are letting everyone know what you think.
Her close is, “All because I want to appease them. If I don’t, my article is unlikely to be published.”
It’s a dance. I feel her. Please send her my condolences and empathy.
We are going to learn all about anxiety and try to get you to think about it in different terms than the world paints it. In the acknowledgments of Future Tense, Tracy, you wrote, “Writing this book was one of the hardest and most satisfying things I’ve ever done. The only thing I can compare it to is seeing my son through the treatment of his congenial heart condition ending with open heart surgery.” That is a big thing to compare writing a book for. I write for Forbes and my businesses. I write copy for Frankie. I write to our investors in our real estate.
As a writer, it is a lonely, anxious thing to do. You are always second-guessing yourself. You are never good enough. At least that’s how I feel at the time. I remember the first article I wrote for Forbes. I must have spent eight hours editing that thing and re-looking at it. I grew over time to relax but so many people start books. Many people think they want to write a book, have an idea for a book or start writing it for years and never finish it. Talk about how anxiety played a role in forcing you to get that book published.
This is the core message of my book. Maybe we have the wrong idea about anxiety because we often would assume anxiety is what stops us from writing that book. Anxiety made me work so hard on that Forbes article. It’s this problem that needs to be solved. It’s a dysfunction that needs to be fixed. I would turn that around because anxiety is not fear that freezes you in the present. When you are fearful, it helps you cope with certain threats and some dangers you are facing. Anxiety sends you into the possible future. It makes you into a mental time traveler.
It helps you know that something bad could happen. You could not get that Forbes article accepted but if you work hard, you still have a shot at getting that Forbes article published. What anxiety is priming us to do is to work for this future. We want to make our dreams come true, avert disaster, and make the positive outcomes into reality.Anxiety is priming you to work for the future you want. It averts disaster and makes your positive outcomes into reality. Click To Tweet
When you think of it that way, and about the writing process, anxiety is that thing that made you work for eight hours on that article until it was good enough. Anxiety is that thing that when I was writing Future Tense, I got the book deal weeks before the pandemic in 2020. I was writing it in the middle of the pandemic and wrote for 6, 7, or 8 months. Once I got some real feedback from my editor, they essentially told me, “These sucks. Throw it all out.”
I had to start from the beginning. It was only my anxiety because I cared about this book. You are only anxious when you care. It was that anxiety that made me persist, took this significant obstacle, and say, “I need to do something different. I need to write this differently. I need to get some support.” I hired an amazing editor named Bill Tonelli, who said, “We are going to start with a blank page, Tracy. Explain your ideas to me.” I’m like, “I don’t know anything.” “Start from the beginning.”
In that hard process, this book was 100 times better than it would have been if I hadn’t been through it. Anxiety was my helpmate. Anxiety is what kept pushing me forward. When my son was born with this heart condition that we knew would require open heart surgery, I needed that anxiety to say, “I have to do everything I can to work to make sure he’s healthy and get the best treatment.”
I also have to hope that there’s an actual good outcome at the end of that. I’m not despairing yet when you’re anxious. You’re still in it to win it. That’s why when we think about anxiety this way, instead of as a blocker, we can start to figure out how to leverage, use, and channel it. As a writer, it’s one of the best assets we have because it also makes us precise, keep working at it, gets it right, and not give up.
When you get a book deal right before COVID, is there a deadline? Are there dates certain that you have to go or the deal’s off? How does that play a role in motivating you to move past and work through some of the anxious moments?
Sometimes it’s those deadlines and that I can’t put my head in the sand anxiety that gets us focused. For a book like this, I needed to deliver the manuscript a year from that point. If I had gotten that feedback and said, “Sorry, I can’t do this. I’m going to return my advance,” that would have been it. I said, “I’m going to rethink this book. I’m going to hire that editor. I’m going to ask for an extension on the deadline.” I got it, so we had some more time but I needed that deadline to keep working towards.
We knew then working backward when you make lists and plans, if you avert all the tension of that, you are not going to be organized. You are not going to be focused. Bill and I had a schedule. Every two weeks, I had to turn over a new chapter from scratch. I had to be done then we moved on to the next one month after month. We did it for nine months or whatever it was. It was anxiety that kept me focused on what those goals were, frankly.
As a writer, an editor is a coach. It’s another way of saying a coach. You are a writing coach. He’s giving you input on what you wrote. He’s helping you tailor it differently. He’s giving you ideas and help move you along. As I hear you explain that, I think in the business world, we always have different projects we are working on but I hear three distinct things there. You had a big deadline, hired a coach who helped keep you accountable, and moved your way through it like having a workout partner, and then you broke that big goal into smaller goals.
You broke it into 2 and 3-week goals, where you were like, “I can’t write an entire book in two weeks but I can sure write a chapter and get it to my editor.” Writers talk about the shitty first draft. Get it a draft. Get it on paper. Keep editing and editing and make it shorter and more concise. Those are the three big things that I heard. Tracy, you were great about this. You put yourself out there. By going and getting that deal, you had a commitment you had to live up to. I gave the introduction to who you are. You are not a person that would quit. You found a coach and broke that big goal into small goals. That’s incredible.
That’s a beautiful breakdown of it. The interesting thing too about anxiety in these goals is we do think that anxiety chokes us but there’s this concept that I wrote about in the book called excellencism. In a nutshell, perfectionism we know is toxic. It’s like the standard of flawlessness that always leads to worse outcomes. It blocks us. It’s never good enough.
Excellencism is this pursuit of excellence. It’s about knowing that you have to fail along the way to get there and that you have to break it down. Anxiety makes us more excellencist. It focuses us on, “I want to do my best. Maybe I’m a little anxious about it but I can do my best. I am empowered to fail, pick myself back up, and keep going.” Breaking it down but also thinking about that pursuit of excellence is a secret to success.
There’s something in here that I’m excited to talk about, and its deadlines. Ian and I are in our 40s, and we are over the fact that we are adolescents at any point. For the entire decade of our 30s, every binge diet that we ever went on was because we wanted to go to a pool in Vegas and didn’t want to embarrass ourselves. These were the motivators. We go on starvation diets only to be slightly fatter when we get to Vegas.
I want to stick to excellencism if we can. It’s a little later in the book. It’s Chapter 8. I will tell a story. I led with my wife. When I read this book, I kept sharing excerpts with her because this is the life she leads. My wife and her sister are both intelligent people but my wife is slightly smarter. My wife was valedictorian. My wife had scholarships. My wife has gone through an academic career. We went back for her twentieth high school reunion. She grew up in South Carolina.
Someone asked her what she was up to. The woman looked at her, nodded, and goes, “That fits.” It fits her perfectly. That’s her life. In excellence as a whole theme, my wife, before hashtag anything was popular, her sister always bought her things that had excellence written on it. There are excellence T-shirts and excellence coffee mugs. I thought it was fascinating because it’s a joke in our household but it’s a way that you can chase things with a high standard but understand that there’s always an opposite side to it. Nothing is perfect. It’s only whitewashed if it’s perfect. I would love you to explain that concept because that was incredible.
There’s that quote from Thomas Edison, who was perhaps an iconic excellencist. He said, “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that don’t work yet.” What does that illustrate? It illustrates that failure is not a destination. It’s a process on this journey. It also illustrates that sometimes you must build imperfect things to get to good things. It illustrates that you can wrap your head around sometimes things are good enough. When you are a perfectionist, you have this standard of flawlessness. It’s binary. It’s like you are 100% or 0.
What does that do? It causes more mental health problems because it is toxic. It gets people to produce fewer good things of lower quality in part because you don’t know when it’s good enough. It’s the Law of Diminishing Returns. You might be working on a paper or an article. If you are so caught up in this perfectionistic, imaginary standard that you have, you won’t know when it’s awesome. Maybe then it’s time to bring in your editor, social support, and people who you can get advice from. It’s harder to also draw on one of our greatest resources as humans, which is other humans.
Perfectionism blocks you but excellencism doesn’t. Excellencism promotes. Keep on keeping at it. Make it better each time. Find new, innovative ways around it. Bring in your social community, knowing, “I’m going to get the best editor.” With my son, “I’m going to get the best cardiothoracic surgeon.” I feel like anything I’ve done in my life worked because I have this characteristic of being an excellencist a lot of the time.
Ian and I spent a lot of our time on this show talking about careers. The excellencist part to me was the perfect summary of what you think you are in your late teens or early twenties. We are both in our mid or late-40s at this point. We no longer chase that elusive thing. The elusiveness is like, “I need to be incredible at everything.”
I’ve had people ask me questions that are like, “How do you do so much?” “It’s because I do so little,” but it’s the truth. I have 50 people that work here. If you don’t have those people doing all those things, it’s the same thing. When you lean into having an expert, it doesn’t mean you are weak or not smart. It means you are smart enough to realize, “I’m not great at this. There’s someone better.”
Not to pivot to anxiety because we have been talking about anxiety. When you are anxious, you are going to keep striving. Anxiety is the fuel that helps us strive. It doesn’t mean you have to white-knuckle it through or suffer but it’s that little free zone. It’s that little like, “I want this.” That’s anxiety. We are doing mental health wrong in general. Anxiety is the prime case study because we’ve decided it blocks us. We’ve decided that discomfort of failing or that pain that we feel when we are wrapped up in that article and, “Is Forbes going to take it? Are they not going to take it? Should I do this alone?”When you're anxious, you're still in it to win it. Click To Tweet
When we are wrapped up in that, we think it’s a blocker or destructive. We will never go through it. We will keep on going around it and losing opportunities. We don’t see that. If we think of anxiety as an ally that we need to negotiate with, like any ally, it’s going to be this powerhouse for us. It’s going to be this source of strength, not a source of weakness and signal that we are broken. That’s the conversation.
I saw that you have a review on the back of your book from Angela Duckworth. Her book, Grit, talks about the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. Whenever I hear someone tell me they are a perfectionist and missing things or not getting things done, I think of someone with a fixed mindset whose ego won’t let them fail, put something out, iterate, practice, and learn from it. You can’t be a perfectionist and start a company because you have to test things with customers who might tell you it sucks, and that’s not good.
If you don’t take that feedback, you are going to fail because it’s so important to be able to take that.
They see failure as a mark on them that’s permanent, whereas someone with a growth mindset sees failure as part of the process. “We got to fail it as many times as we can until we get to something that works.” Maybe it’s anxiety but I’ve always thought of a perfectionist as their ego gets in the way. They have a limited mindset versus the growth mindset that gets better because they are like, “Screw it. I will keep failing.”
That is all mindset. Anxiety is secondary to that. Sometimes it’s part of it. In some ways, we could lose the term anxiety and use the term mindset when it comes to my book even. I even started the whole book by saying, “This is not a self-help book in the traditional sense.” The soul goal of this book is to ask you to consider thinking differently about anxiety, shifting your mindset, and going from being this sign of danger and damage to a sign that you are ready to expand your limits. You are ready to grow. You are going into the future.
I will briefly describe this beautiful study that illustrates this to a tee. It was a study coming out of Harvard, 2013, Jamieson and colleagues, and they’ve expanded this work. This has been replicated, and they published a paper in Nature which was amazing. They brought socially anxious people into the lab and had them do something that’s kryptonite for someone who’s socially anxious because you fear negative evaluation from others. They had them give an impromptu speech. It’s called the Betray Your Social Stress Test but they did one thing to half of the group.
They taught those folks who are socially anxious, “This is a clinical disorder.” They taught them to think differently about their anxiety as they prep to give that speech. They said, “Your heart is going to race. You’re going to feel terrible but that’s not you getting ready to fail. That’s you getting ready to perform at your best because your heart is racing to put oxygen into your brain. Your body is ready to focus. You are bringing it. That’s what these feelings are.”
They didn’t give that reframe to the other half of the group. When they measured performance during the speech, they measured heart rate and blood pressure, those people who were taught to shift their mindset about stress and anxiety a little bit for 15 to 20 minutes had lower blood pressure and lower heart rates and did better. This was this micro intervention. This is something we can repeat in our lives every day. When we are about to face a challenge, that’s about mindset.
Let’s define anxiety from the book. “Anxiety is what we feel when something bad could happen but hasn’t happened yet.” The question I wanted to ask you, Tracy, is what is the difference then between anxiety and fear? Is there a difference?
There is. It’s hard to make sometimes because they feel the same a lot of the time. We equate them. The difference is why I call this book Future Tense. Fear is the present certainty that you are facing danger. It’s a clear and present danger. There’s no uncertainty. It’s going to happen. It’s someone holding a knife to your throat. That is fear. Fear, like all emotions, is adaptive. It primes us to respond in a way that can help us. That’s why Darwin wrote about emotions, and it was a major part of his theory. Fear prepares us to fight, take flight or freeze.
Anxiety has nothing to do with the present tense. It’s all about the future. It makes us into these mental time travelers. You are looking around the bend. You are waiting for those medical tests to come back. You are waiting to see if your article has been accepted. You are waiting to see how your son’s open-heart surgery is going to go when he’s four months old. That is anxiety. It’s not that the bad thing hasn’t happened yet, but the possibility of good still exists because otherwise, you would despair. That’s the power of anxiety. The flip side of anxiety is hope.
Whenever I think about anxiety, my gut is telling me to go act on something. The gut is similar to anxiety a little bit. People say, “Don’t listen to your gut.” I always say, “That’s terrible advice because we are here on this planet because some caveman thousands of years ago didn’t go into that cave when his gut was saying, ‘Don’t go in.’” In the way you described it, anxiety is, “What if there’s a bear in that dark cave that I want to go into?”
Fear is, “There’s a bear in our campsite trying to eat me.” It’s immediate. Certain fear is like, “There’s a bear. I got to run or hit it with a rock.” Anxiety is, “What if a bear came?” That anxiety would make me create weapons, build a campfire, and do things that I still could control to get the bear to go. If I hadn’t done those things and the bear was there, that’s fear. I’m screwed. I got to try to outrun this thing.
I will cite you every good academic word, Frank. I will cite you but I’m going to take that example because it’s a perfect example of the difference. It’s why I say that we would not have civilization if it weren’t for anxiety. It requires that unique triumph of human evolution, which is our simulation machine called the prefrontal cortex. This allows us to imagine in exquisite detail what that future could be and that there could be a bear in that cave.
What would it take to deal with that bear? How do we make plans to anticipate that bear? How do we make plans that we might find some nourishing something or a safe place? Anxiety allows us to see that cave could also be a shelter. This is why to say that anxiety is always a disorder. Sometimes it is, and that can be a discussion we go into or to say that the emotion of anxiety means we are broken or need to be fixed. It’s wrong. It’s an opportunity cost for all of these reasons because we are taking it as a disadvantage, something that is a profound advantage.
I want to lean into this a little bit this way. We’ve evolved. We’ve talked about the cave. We no longer live in those. You live in New York. You live in a vertical building. That being the case, what is it about the society that has caused us to turn our back on these things that have helped get us here? There is a lean-in to anxiety. If you learn how to harness it, it can fuel you. You talk a lot about like the Sacklers. We talk a lot about dope sick. A lot of that was filmed in my backyard. I have family members who have suffered from it. I paid attention to it.
I’m not good enough, and I don’t understand the subject matter as well as you do but I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition. I will say one thing and have you take it. I’m an old dad. I’m in my 40s, and I have a kid. I also know how to manage. I realize my son goes to daycare and is around other kids, and I’m not there. He seems to come home quite happy.
When I go to the park with them, I will sit on a stool 50 feet away. I’m making sure no real bodily harm or no one is putting them in a bag and taking them in a van. As long as they are inside the fence, go have fun. Figure it out. I feel like there’s a helicopter parenting type thing. We don’t want there to be anything other than this utopic existence. It’s doing a disservice to almost everybody.
It’s a huge disservice. There’s so much in what you said, Frank. I will start with one idea, and then we can talk about kids too, because it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. I’m also an old mom. The first thing is about the societal forces that have shifted us to reject anxiety. They are old forces and starting as I outline in the book with the medieval church and how anxiety went from being this bodily thing to the domain of the soul and the domain of later the mind as the enlightenment happened. You started to develop these philosophies and science.
With the advent of psychology, as a discipline is to decide, “These emotions like anxiety, this emotional life, the emotional suffering, we apply a disease model to it. We are going to medicalize it.” That created wonderful advances. The problem is that the disease model, this medical model of mental illness, doesn’t work and has 100 years of failure. We have great science and solutions but mental health problems are not in the downturn. It’s not just awareness. It’s not that we are noticing more.We would not have civilization if it weren't for anxiety. Click To Tweet
The best data suggest that they are on the rise. In part, it’s because we’ve equated mental health, like in a medical model, with the absence of emotional discomfort, much like we equate physical health with the absence of having COVID or cancer. It’s almost like an infectious disease model that you can’t have these difficult emotions or these challenges, or it means that you are broken like with a physical disease but that’s wrong. This is from Angela Duckworth’s quote on the back of my book, “Anxiety and all of our difficult emotions are a feature of being human. They are not a bug. They are not malfunctioning. They don’t need to be fixed. They need to be like a skill worked with and through.”
Tom Insel himself, who ran the NIMH, the National Institute of Mental Health, for over a decade, controlled $22 billion worth of research funding of which I was a recipient. He had gone into the Silicon Valley world, wrote a book, and gave an interview at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where he said, “The disease model of mental illness doesn’t work.”
This was the guy who was the king of that model. This was the guy who controlled that. You don’t get funding from the NIMH unless you buy into this disease model and approach to treating mental illness. We have a big problem in terms of the larger societal forces and how we think and talk about mental health. There are kids. How are we talking about them?
How long has our society even used the word anxiety to describe these feelings? If you asked multiple people what anxiety meant to them, you would get different answers.
It’s a great point. Even I will use it loosely to mean the same as fear or worry.
You did that with your kids. I don’t remember the exact ages but they had different expectations about what it was.
It means different things. Honestly, the first time we even started using it as an internal experience was the anxiety that the Catholic Church talked about in the Dark Ages when it tried to leverage this notion of the dark night of the soul, anxiety, and angst. In your anxiety, seek out God’s comfort because hellfire is on the other side. That’s the first time it became an internal process. We started using it philosophically with cons and other people but you have to look at Freud.
When Freud wrote about anxiety, that real translation was angst which is not the same as anxiety. Angst is the existential experience. In the English language, we started using it in the domain of mental illness when Freudian theory got out there and then as Psychology grew in the United States, Europe, and beyond. It is newish. It has always been this bugaboo. It has been this demon on our shoulders from the time that the church talked about it. It’s something to be frightened of. The foul fiend of fear. One of the first pseudo-psychiatric manuals by Burton talked about anxiety as this foul fiend of fear.
I can never get over whenever anyone cites Freud. I can never get over the fact that he prescribed everything as you wanted to hump your mom. I feel like it always got back to that. I felt like he was a weird dude. It’s hard for me to get too deep into Freudian concepts.
We don’t have to go down that rabbit hole necessarily but think about how this was morally and emotionally restricted Victorian period, this high society of Vienna. All of these people he treated were extremely repressed, and this is, in a sense, they had the same approach to difficult emotions as we do. What we aspire to is to be comfortably numb. Frank, this goes into what you were saying about the opioid crisis being hand in hand with this benzodiazepine crisis where we are not talking about nearly enough. We have a serious problem with addiction and overdose death with the main anti-anxiety medication out there.
Benzodiazepine-overdose death is the third leading cause of death after opioids. It is a huge problem. We don’t prepare people to understand the risks. It’s overprescribed. It’s a huge industry. We don’t understand that some people can benefit from it when you have an anxiety disorder. It’s not that you are anxious. It’s that the way you are coping with anxiety is causing functional impairment. It’s getting in the way of working, loving, and creating.
Anxiety gets such a bad rap in that. You said it’s a feature. I like that. It’s one of our superpowers. This is right from the book. “When we are anxious, our attention narrows. We become more focused, and we become more detail-oriented. Positive emotions do the opposite. They broaden our focus and make us less attentive.” There’s a quote that people say in business all the time, “If you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person on your team.”
That’s the most anxious person.
It’s true, though. I have been the busiest person on the team, and my boss kept giving me stuff. I always felt like the more deadlines I had and the more I had on my plate, the more on top of things were, and the more I got it. If I would go through a busy period and then things would slow way down, I wasn’t as sharp. I would miss some deadlines. I wouldn’t be on top of things as much. I always felt like the busier I was, the more on top of things I was. When we are anxious, our attention narrows, and we become more focused.
That’s the messy work of being human. We’ve profoundly failed people if we are telling them, “Mental health means you are happy all the time. You should avoid all these destructive, dangerous emotions.” It’s a huge disservice because what you are describing is to say, “There’s this emotional alchemy I need to have. I need to know that sometimes I need to be more anxious and not be afraid of it or think I’m broken. I need to learn to live with it and use it.” That takes time, skill, acceptance, and engagement.
Sometimes I need to broaden, let go, and get my body ready for Las Vegas or whatever it is that I need to do. If we think of our emotions, the full range of them, not as dangerous but as part of that messy work of being human, the alchemy of being able to sometimes be angry when you need to overcome obstacles. Other times be super expansive and chill, to work with that and find the right balance in your life, that is what the actual model for mental health should be. It should be more like fitness. It shouldn’t be like a disease where you eradicate discomfort. It should be, “This is fitness. I’m building skills.”
I love your analogy. Think of anxiety like a smoke alarm. Warning that your house is on fire, you would never ignore that alarm, which is what we are telling people to do. We tell our kids, “Ignore it. You are not anxious.” Instead of leaning into it, let’s medicate. Let’s take some pills, and that will help the anxiety go away. Take college. Let’s say I was stressed I was going to flunk an exam. That’s my body telling me, “You haven’t studied enough. You’ve missed some classes. Get your ass to the library. By the way, I’m not going to let you sleep at night until you go spend twelve hours at that library.”
That’s like a best friend.
I couldn’t sleep. I was an Engineering degree at Purdue. It was hard. If I couldn’t sleep, I would get up, pack my bag, go to the library, and study until I could sleep. That was anxiety helping me pass tests. I shouldn’t have medicated myself out of anxiety. I shouldn’t have complained to my mom and said, “Mom, I’m anxious about an exam.” “Honey, maybe you have anxiety problems. Go take some pills or Go study more or you are going to flunk that test.”
We, Gen X-ers, know that. We were also raised where they let us play with broken glass and run in the woods. The gift that we had was this notion that you can throw yourself in, and it’s going to be hard but you can do the hard stuff. That’s what it takes to be an adult. We are systematically denying our kids that opportunity, Frank, which goes to the third part of what you were saying.
With all the best intentions, we think that our job as parents is to snowplow out all the obstacles, all the sources of suffering, and we are treating our kids like they are fragile, a teacup that you drop on the ground, and it smashes into a million pieces. Kids are not fragile. It’s crucial for us as parents to change our mindset about our kids and what they are capable of.Anxiety and all of your difficult emotions are a feature of being human. They're not a malfunction. Click To Tweet
This is the follow-up on this. I love this is something else that Tracy wrote. “Anxiety works so well, not because it feels great to be anxious, just the opposite. It succeeds because it makes us feel so bad. This is called negative reinforcement. Stopping the anxious feeling is the reward.” That is a dynamite passage. Talk about that.
It’s taking this idea. If there’s any advice in the book, there is a couple of guidelines. One of them is anxiety is information. Listen to it. That means when you feel anxious and when the anxiety goes away. When you feel anxious again, it’s telling you what you care about. It’s telling you there’s something you need to do. It’s telling you that there’s something to attend to. Maybe there’s a goal.
You can make something amazing happen when you listen to it. When it goes away, maybe you are on the right track. That doesn’t mean you want to live on anxiety like a type A all the time. You need to like learn to flow and work with it but you have to listen to it when it’s up and when it’s down. You have to take it as information that makes us better. That’s at the heart of that quote as well.
If anxiety is just information, how do we know if that information is rational or irrational? What if we are worrying about everything? If someone is reading this, what advice would you give them to try to decide whether that information is rational or irrational?
That’s a lifetime’s job of understanding. The first thing you have to do is listen to it because that’s what we don’t even do. We don’t even take that first step of saying, “I’m going to be open to this for a second.” Consider when you are up at night and can’t sleep saying, “Maybe it’s because I have to study for that test.” The first stage is to be open to it and listen.
Once you do, you are going to gain skills. Once you engage and believe that you can work with this anxiety, it’s not dangerous or dysfunction, you will start to figure out for yourself, “When I’m anxious, and it’s keeping me up one time a month, that’s still within a healthy range.” If it’s starting to like, “I’m listening. I’m not hearing anything. I’m not getting what the useful information is. It’s getting in the way. I’m failing my tests or I’m not going to work.”
The way that you are trying to listen and work with it is getting in your way. That’s a good indication that it’s not useful information at that point. See a therapist, exercise, take care of yourself, and bring yourself back to the present moment. That’s the second guideline I talk about. If it’s not useful information after you listen to it, do something that immerses you in the present, nourishes you, and takes care of yourself.
Don’t watch cable news but maybe binge a little on Netflix. That’s okay. Do something that helps you press the reset button. Exercise is one of the best ways to do that, whether it’s walking or a hard workout. I write terrible poetry but I love writing poetry. It gets me in this different mindset. Connect with friends. See your therapist. Do those things. It allows you to loop back and say, “Let me reevaluate. Is there useful information? How do I hitch it to a sense of purpose, something I want from life, something I am driven for? How do I use that anxiety to advance me?” Those are the three steps we can all go through and gain skills in.
I had enough exposure to kids through cousins, nephews, and Ian’s kids. When you are talking about this, maybe you think of something that we didn’t write down in our prep but it’s this. Maybe you studied or learned it from your own kids. When do humans feel anxiety for the first time, like when it’s actionable? Did you go back that far? To be honest, when do we recognize it first?
In addition to being a clinical psychologist in training and neuroscience, I’m a developmental psychologist as well. We develop across the lifespan. What you want to think about as a developmentalist is what is hard for kids but also expected. Anxiety is an expected piece of development. You want to see some stranger anxiety around a year old. We hitch all sorts of assumptions about healthy child development on the idea that they will distinguish between their family, their community, and a stranger. That’s early.
Fear of the dark is a normal developmental stage around 8 or 9 when kids are in the latency period. Latency means you are not hot for your mom or dad. That’s when anxiety is increased. When my kids were 8 or 9, almost like clockwork, they developed a fear of strangers breaking into our house and another of bugs. They work through it. It is expected. It’s actionable from the beginning. This is some of the most important research out there when it comes to kids and anxiety. You can’t over-accommodate those fears. Day after day, month after month, you can’t remove all of the exposure to those things. You have to help kids work through it slowly.
When kids become seriously anxious, parents over accommodate. They are anxious about going to school or leaving the house. “You don’t have to go to school. You can sleep in my bed every night.” Once, that’s okay but if that becomes a habit, it’s not a good norm. It deepens these problems with anxiety. We can work through it early on. You do it systematically, steady and slow. That’s the best way usually but we can do it with our kids.
A one-year-old is expressive for somebody. He doesn’t have any words but he can point. When you said the thing about knowing like no stranger danger, he’s good at those things and understands the edge.
I love that you said he’s good at it. It is a skill. We parents are so anxious about our kids’ anxiety. What if we start saying, “There are costs and benefits to everything but this is also a strength. My anxious kid is going to be an engineer. He’s going to be a scientist. He’s going to be an artist because he cares enough to get it right.”
It comes down to the parent to understand it. When my youngest was 2 or 3 weeks old, I noticed he followed something with his eyes that his brother hadn’t done until he was almost three months old. You realize pretty quickly because you are aware, and you care. It’s your children. You are like, “He seems to be pretty perceptive.” You give them an ability even though he’s only one. You don’t let him play up against the highway but at the same time, you give him some rope to lean into those things and develop them.
I have a real beef with the mental health industry and the self-help industry because it’s almost predatory at this stage. We are convincing parents that they don’t know what they are doing. They should be frightened about their kids and that we are all vulnerable. Most of it’s the best of intentions. We must be much more punk rock about mental health and child development. We have to say, “This is the mental health industrial complex.”
This is Gen X speaking. You don’t understand exactly what I’m saying but this is this complex that’s not serving us. We are part of this unhelpful machine, creating people who are vulnerable instead of antifragile, which is what we are. We gain from challenges. We gain from having to work and strain and try our best to do hard things.
Frank, when your boys get a little bit older to where they start taking tests, they care what their teacher and peers think, and when they get into sports, you are going to see anxiety start to ratchet up. Some of my favorite conversations with my kids have been around sports, where my son will say, “I’m stressed about this game on Thursday.” I will be like, “What are you stressed about?” “They have a good pitcher.” “What could happen?”
I’m trying to figure out, “Are you scared you’re going to get hit?” “No, that’s not it. I want to win.” “What are you stressed about, though?” “I don’t want to strike out.” “Do you want to skip the game?” “Of course not. I love baseball.” “What is in your control if you don’t want to strike out?” “Can we go to the batting cages?” “We can go.”
“You have a tee in the backyard. Why don’t you swing to 300 times? Is that better? Will that help you not strike out or should you just sit and worry about Thursday for three days and do nothing? If that’s what you do, you are striking out. You might as well not even be stressed because not doing anything and worrying means you are guaranteeing your future. If you don’t want to strike out, why are you not in the backyard hitting into that net? That’s what you should do. Let’s lean into that anxiety.”
That’s the gift of anxiety, and a parent like you can help a child navigate that. I’m sure you said, “You don’t want to go to the game?” I’m sure you weren’t going to be like, “Let’s not go to the game.” You were helping him think through, “Why are you in it? Why do you care? What can you do?” You are giving him agency. That’s the gift of anxiety when we work through it.Anxiety is information when you feel anxious and when it goes away, so listen to it. Click To Tweet
“Go do what’s in your control. Go do what you think you can do.” You tell a great story about the Rubin Museum of Art. We started to talk about hope and anxiety earlier. Can you talk about that exhibit and the conversation you had with your children?
The Rubin Museum is one of my favorite museums in the city. It’s small. It’s Downtown in Manhattan, devoted to Himalayan Art. There are many Buddhist art, Hindu art, and beautiful pieces. They also have modern artists. There was an installation there called the Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful. I’ve taken my kids there since they were small. We walk in one day, and there’s this big display on one of the walls, and it’s a little confusing at first. There are all these red little placards, almost like Post-it notes, on one side of the wall, and on the other side, there are blue ones.
There’s a table there. You walked up, and then my daughter was one of the first to notice what this was about. She’s like, “They want us to make the art.” The little tabs on the table said, “I am anxious because or I am hopeful because.” You can pick any of them. You write what you’re anxious about. You write what you are hopeful about. You put it up on the wall, the red side for anxiety and the blue side for hope. My kids, at the time, must have been 5 and 8 or 6 and 9. They were writing and putting things up.
My son started noticing that there were some patterns in what people had written. You would see on the anxiety side, “I’m anxious because I have a job interview.” Right next to it on the hope side, “I’m hopeful because I have a job interview.” There were quite a few of these replications where anxiety and hope were two sides of the same coin.
The artist who created this piece, Candy Chang and James Reeves, wrote the piece, “Anxiety and hope are twins in a way because they both are about the moment that has yet to arrive.” They are about the future. They are about uncertainty but uncertainty holds all this possibility like creativity. Creativity is about the uncertain future. It holds all these potentialities. I thought it was so beautiful that my kids could experience that in time by interacting with this art.
The person who says, “I am hopeful for a job interview,” versus the person who says, “I am anxious for a job interview,” could there be a difference in their mindsets going into that? Are they both saying the exact same thing and just using a different word?
It’s a powerful difference. I spoke to someone about this. I was sharing this idea of hope and anxiety being flipped, two sides of the same coin. She said, “That makes so much sense but it matters which one you choose. I’ve started to think of myself as this anxious person but that doesn’t fit who I think of as my personality or what I do in the world. What I’ve realized is I’m not a person who struggles with anxiety. I’m a person who struggles with hope.”
Everything changes when you change that equation. It’s very much mindset not because of what anxiety by the textbook definition means but what do we mean when we say anxiety? We mean that there is danger, destructive or, “I’m broken.” We have this sense of the danger aspect of it. We can’t think about that. It’s not about positive possibilities at all, even though I argue in the book that the truth is anxiety allows us to see both. I would love us to reclaim the word anxiety so that we understand that it means, at the same time, anxiety, hope, possibility, and potential.
This is an interview of sorts. We are interviewing you. It’s not a job interview but I was anxious about this interview. I told my wife what I was doing, “I am super excited about this interview I’m doing.” Here’s the reason why I would use those. A few days ago, I told her, “I’m a little anxious about it.” Here’s why. I hadn’t finished the book, and I hadn’t written the outline. When I think about the difference between hopeful or excited, and anxious, when I use those two words in a situation, it comes down to preparedness for me.
If I were to tell someone, “I’m anxious about a speech I have to give,” it probably means I didn’t practice it enough. I hadn’t scripted it. I wasn’t happy with the script. I hadn’t done enough research on the audience and on what I was going to be talking about. I hadn’t sat in a room by myself, prepared, and recited it so many times that I knew it by heart.
When I’ve done those things, I’m never nervous or anxious about a presentation. I don’t care. I’ve done enough but when I am anxious, it’s usually because I’m not prepared. When someone tells me, “I’m anxious, and I don’t know what to do about a speech or a presentation,” my first question is always, “How many times have you practiced it?”
That’s so interesting. I love that because anxiety is on this spectrum. It’s not a light switch like you are anxious or not. It includes your gut instinct, that tummy test. It includes excitement. What you are saying is that with our mindset, the way we use it doesn’t include those good things like excitement. It’s for me, you, and many of us, an indicator of, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to be good enough. There’s still work to be done.” Do you think it would help to call it to nerve excited from the beginning like, “I’m nervous excited?” Is that helpful or does it help you to think about anxiety as something?
That’s avoidance again. I would argue with you, “It was great that I was anxious.” The reason I was anxious was that I was excited that you were coming to our show because I loved your book. I didn’t want to blow it. I didn’t want to waste your time because I’m respectful that you wanted to come and talk to us. I wanted everyone to hear all the greatness of the book and be as excited as I was. It was good that I was anxious because it forced me to be like, “Frank, if you have bought the book yet, you need to read the book.” Write down all my notes in my outline. Check it out. It’s in the Dropbox. Start looking at it. Call Frank again to see if he’s read the book.
I’m certainly not suggesting you sugarcoat it but what interests me, though, is that you are a person who’s good with anxiety. You are already an alchemist of anxiety. You don’t need to change your mindset about it in that way. It is exactly right. What about someone, when they feel any of that anxiety, considers it a danger and it shuts them down rather than sends them to action? Maybe it’s for those folks that this, “Let’s like rethink it. It’s unpleasant but it’s not bad.” You are already there, Ian. How do we change the language when all of us have different relationships with anxiety? I’m not sure.
We’ve gone over this. My wife has a PhD. I’m married to a linguist. She teaches.
What did she say?
I didn’t ask her this specific question but I’m going to. She’s taught me about all the other cultures. In our society, gender is more fluid. She goes into the fluidity of gender in other societies and talks about how it’s not two in every society. It’s more fluid. Using something that’s back to the words, this is a fear. One of the things I want to close with you is social media. I want to talk a little bit about kids and that whole thing, which we will get to. Will the medical industry allow us to introduce another word?
Is anxiety the right word or are there stages of it? Should there be something that we are not talking about? There’s a process of anxiety. There’s the initial, and then there’s that moment of. There are levels to it, and we don’t think of it that way. We think of it as an on and off switch but it isn’t. When we go and do something, usually, anxiety fades because of incredible preparedness. You had anxiety when you had 100 blank pages. When you had 90 pages of the written word, you had less anxiety. You are slightly further in the process.
My approach has been to argue, reclaim the word, and then understand with this emotional granularity that there are all these aspects to it. It’s parsimonious to say, “Let’s stick with what we have but have a different conversation about it.” We understand that anxiety is also hope. It’s a possibility. It is a bad feeling, and there are nuances to it. It’s your gut instinct. It’s the butterflies in your stomach. It’s all those things. We can start to understand that the good, the bad, the ugly, and all of that is a part of this normal human experience that doesn’t have to be pathologized. Maybe that’s too complex but that’s how my brain works on it.
On this topic, you say, “Our brains don’t ignore uncertainty. They lean into it. Without over-expending any conscious effort, our brain does two things surprisingly well. It notices the uncertainty, and then it does everything it can to control it.” That resonates with me so much because every time I’m anxious, it gets me off my ass.Anxiety can make you feel strong, not weak. So stop being inactive and start being active. Click To Tweet
For our tech startup, we are three levels into it with casting directors trying to get onto Shark Tank, and we’ve made it to the final deal on it. I have been anxious about this because that’s obviously a big presentation, and I have been thinking about it. What I found myself doing every time I’m anxious about it is I start watching old Shark Tank episodes with pen and paper. It brings my anxiety down because the reason why I’m anxious is I’m not in control. I’m waiting on the casting directors to call us back. It’s this awful process of waiting forever and thinking about what’s this uncertain future that I’m also hopeful for. A lot of good things are coming.
That’s why you are anxious.
When I feel anxious, I find that by watching Shark Tank episodes because that’s research, that’s prep, that’s looking at what pitches work and what doesn’t work, I find that my anxiety goes down by watching, taking notes, getting thoughts, and talking to my partner about what we might do with it even though it’s no certainty we are going to get on this show. It’s hard to get on the show. When I feel anxiety, it forces me to go do something, even though it’s not getting me ready but it’s doing something.
It’s an activating emotion. Some emotions like sadness deactivate us. They get us to rest and recover but not anxiety. The thing about you watching those Shark Tank episodes and taking notes is you are simulating this future. You are doing everything you can to exert control. I could die in a plane crash. There’s no certainty but I devoted a whole chapter to uncertainty.
My editor, Bill, said, “Could you write a whole chapter without mentioning anxiety?” I was like, “Let me try.” You will notice in that chapter I don’t use the word anxiety until I get to the last couple of paragraphs. You cannot be anxious without uncertainty. The future is only uncertain but anxiety is that emotion that is in that space in between. It’s what sticks us to doing everything in our power even if it’s a loser-y control, and you could be an existential psychologist. It won’t let you.
Anxiety won’t let you feel sorry for yourself and be a victim. It forces you to get off your ass and do something.
It makes us feel weak. Once we stop doing that, it makes us feel strong like, “I have to do something. I have to stop being inactive and start being active.”
One thing I want to talk about before we do close is this. You talk about the comparison between social media and a casino. Ian and I already talked about our affinity for Vegas, and we like casinos. You talk about in the book how in casinos, there are no right angles. Everything is meander like the hallways. It’s an endless scroll.
The things that I worry about as a young dad are drugs with my kids. I worry about the effects of social media. We’ve touched on drugs a little bit. I would like to talk a little bit about your perception or thoughts about social media and how that feeds into anxiety. You’ve already given us a couple of clues about where you think it’s going but I wanted to address that.
It’s crucial. We’ve often laid the blame for society’s anxiety at the feet of social media. That’s wrong because that’s binary. It’s all bad or good. The reality is there’s a lot of bad toxic stuff about the social media ecosystem and the way it was built on purpose for the profit of these companies. It’s not made for us humans but it’s not going away. To say, “It’s destroying a generation or it’s all good. It’s no problem,” those aren’t going to lead to real solutions. What’s going to lead to solutions is to dig into the nuances, which no one likes to do, essentially in a world where we want screaming headlines.
When it comes to our kids, these screens are not going away. We have to teach them to be digital citizens. What does that mean? They have to understand how it works. They have to take responsibility and look for opportunities to do useful, productive, and happy-making things in their life. If you start doom scrolling, you are going to feel crappy. There’s no second word about it. If we teach our kids to tune into, “Do you want to be on the screen? What do you want to do and why? How does it make you feel? Let’s take a moment. That makes you feel bad? What makes you feel good?”
Start to hone little by little our children’s ability to make some of those choices. We should make it for them in the beginning. I don’t think young kids should be on screens much at all because it becomes an opportunity cost to what they need to do. I allow my kids to be on screens but we monitor and manage. I make sure it’s not an opportunity cost for my son, who’s a pianist, a composer, and loves to write and do other things. It’s not getting in the way of my daughter, who loves to swim and is a creator in so many ways. That’s how we parents should think about it. Number one, digital citizens.
Number two, anxiety is amplified when we try to escape and avoid it. Social media is one big, giant escape machine. If we find that we are using it to escape uncomfortable experiences, if our kids are doing that habitually, that will get in their way, and that might amplify anxiety. We have to look for those patterns and disrupt them.
You could say social media is creating a mental health dilemma or you could look at it and say, “A mental health dilemma, which is us running away from anxiety, is pushing us over to social media to go escape.” Am I on social media because I’m avoiding anxiety or am I getting anxious by being there sometimes? “Why am I on here so much? It’s because I’m avoiding something I should be doing in the future that I’m anxious about.”
It’s so optimized to suck us in, obviously the casino analogy. Here’s the other thing that is more dangerous about social media and what we talk much less about it. We have been made to feel, especially our kids are growing up on screens, that we are products to be consumed. We are brands. We have to sell ourselves. We have been gamified. What is valued are your likes, your clicks, and your followers.
What’s validated and incentivized is the shallowest part of ourselves. Kids are developing selves in these crucibles. They are made to value this uber consumerism. They themselves are consumed and are to consume. It disrupts our ability to find purpose in life and something that’s greater than ourselves to work for. That’s the danger, honestly.
What advice would you give Frank when he starts feeling bad that whenever we post something on social media, it gets a lot more likes when I’m doing more of the talking than the ones where he’s doing the talking?
Frank, you are not part of the machine. Sorry, Ian. You are a sellout. That means something to you because we are all the same age. No one cares about that anymore, by the way.
You talk about how anxiety drives creativity, especially periods of high anxiety. There are so many stories. One Frank and I love Phil Knight’s Nike book, Shoe Dog. That whole book is one existential crisis after the next of him trying to make payroll and get the next loan. Every time, he’s about to not get the next loan and go bankrupt. He gets this a-ha moment and completely revolutionizes the industry. Elon Musk talks about how many times he has been days away from not making payroll with Tesla with big companies. What is it about anxiety that drives the most creative moments that we have?Anxiety is amplified when we try to escape and avoid it, and social media is one giant escape machine. Click To Tweet
These guys are masters of anxiety. Anxiety is when you are facing that uncertain future. How do you make your dreams come true? That’s what it is. That’s what that emotion is for. It’s not some vestigial organ to battle the cave bear. It’s this civilization builder. Creativity is about bringing something into existence that’s never existed before and quite that way. It is this uncomfortable space. Every creative person knows the distance between where you are now and where you want to be. That’s where anxiety lives as well.
Anxiety supercharges us through that space to move into this creative future. It also helps us care and know that we care about what we are doing. We persist through obstacles. The research that has been done on looking at anxiety and creativity does cool stuff. It induces anxiety in people, makes them feel more anxious, and compares that to when you are feeling sad or happy.
You measure things like, “How many solutions do you come up with? How innovative are those solutions when you have to do a problem-solving task? How much do you persist through obstacles?” Anxiety wins that contest every single time in some of these well-conducted studies. Anxiety makes us more innovative, not less. It helps us push through harder, not choking us when we befriend it like an ally that we need to negotiate with but it’s still there to be our ally.
If a manager has a poor-performing employee who’s clearly anxious, how could that manager help this person learn from their anxiety and take action rather than getting into this doom spiral where the more anxiety, the less they do? I’ve seen it happen. People are worried they are going to lose their job, then do less, and perform worse. Someone talks to them, and then this anxiety keeps getting there until it becomes a reality. How can a manager better coach an employee who works for them and has a lot of anxiety?
There are two things, and it also requires the culture of the company to be consistent with this. The first thing is you call out that cycle for what it is, not in a pathologizing way but you say, “I want to talk to you.” There might be some anxiety you are experiencing and what you are doing with it is you are avoiding it. It’s making you not take the chances and not follow through. When you avoid it, that’s when the trouble starts. Calling that cycle out first is important. Avoidance is the key. It’s the linchpin on that.
The second thing is to create a culture where it’s excellencist culture. You convince that employee. You walk the talk that making mistakes is how we advance if you call them out and don’t hide your head in the sand. I’ve run a research lab for many years as well as founding a startup. I’ve had students in my lab who made some mistakes early on and were too anxious to point them out. You have this error. You have this broken cog or piece, and everything is built on top of that. We would discover it months later, or in one case, a year later. The whole data set was destroyed, and millions of dollars of NIH funding out the window.
I learned from that. I let my students and my employees in the company know that when we see something wrong, and there’s a mistake, we lean into it. We fix it together because we are going to make things better when we can discover that. Having that growth mindset, excellencist culture is the second key ingredient to helping an employee with that.
That’s different from a concept that you coin as the emotional snowplow. You talk about it with kids, but I’ve seen managers do this with employees. They try to talk them out of their anxiety. They talk over that person instead of letting them say, “Here’s why I’m not sleeping at night, boss. This is what is on my mind.” It’s like what you were doing with your son who didn’t want to ride his bike. You were telling him that he’s being silly.
I was essentially telling him to man up in not so many words like, “You are not anxious. You are not scared.” I was shaming him. I was doing the opposite of what I’m telling you, guys. I recorded myself by mistake and transcribed that into the beginning of the chapter. It was a massive parent fail. You can come back from it. I love to think about this managerial relationship, not as parenting in a condescending way but more as being here to cultivate a coaching way.
If you are snowplowing around it, it’s easy to do that because of safe spaces. We feel like we are in charge of the mental health of our employees. We put that on managers. That’s not the right place for it to be. This whole idea we have to soothe and comfort is not going to lead to anything good. In the end, you have to help people acknowledge it. Be real, not be ashamed and then work through it together.
Emotional snowplowing, those words come out as, “It’s okay. Everything is going to be all right. Don’t worry about it.” What you are saying there is you’re snowplowing their emotion out of the way. Don’t let them discover. Talk over it and try to convince them that they can get through it when the truth is, you need to say, “What are you anxious about?”
“Truthfully, that deadline was set four weeks earlier than any of us think we got a chance of doing it.” “Let’s look at that. Why do you say that? What would it take to hit the deadline?” “We need three more people, and our system needs to work.” By asking them to tell you why they are anxious, they bring up real-world things that are in their way that are resistance to hitting their goal that you could help with as a manager.
It’s probably crucial information that you as a manager might not have access to because you are not boots on the ground with every detail. We want to say, “We don’t want problems,” if that’s our mindset. We are like, “I want this done,” but you have to have the courage to take a chance and do the messier work. It’s going to yield though tenfold when you do. That’s a great analogy.
Right after college, I felt like I was a much more anxious person. I had a lot more general anxiety than I do now. Part of the reason when I look at it is at 21 or 22, you are worried about, “How am I going to make a living and pay the rent? How am I going to find someone to marry? Am I going to have kids when I get older? Am I going to make it in a career? What is my career? What path am I going to choose?”
Several years later, I’ve answered a lot of those questions. The big ticket things that you worry about in your future, it’s almost like Maslow’s hierarchy. I’ve covered a lot of the base of the pyramid. A lot of the things that maybe I worry about are a little more aspirational now, but as a kid, I worried about everything because I had so many. What advice would you give someone who’s starting their career, new in their career, and worrying about everything like general anxiety, “There are so many question marks in my future?”
I feel for young people because even when we were kids, what you are describing is this uncertainty. Uncertainty is on hyperdrive now with the pandemic, all of the social change, and economic change. We can’t count on the American dream anymore quite the way that we thought we could when we were growing up. This is what kids are reacting to. My advice is something I learned from a young college student who I have been talking to a lot. She’s amazing. She’s active in digital wellness and advocacy work. She said, “I have been thinking a lot about my peers and how we all feel all this anxiety about this uncertainty, and everything is going to hell in a handbasket.”
She said, “The problem that my friends have is that they think that they are so vulnerable and fragile that they are going to go off the rails and break at any point. What I’ve realized is I’ve started to look inward, trust myself and get off social media more that I can’t be shaken. Even if the winds are blowing me and the uncertainty is there, who I am, and the value I have cannot be shaken.” The way that she started cultivating that for herself was by hitching herself to a deep sense of purpose in what she does in life. For her, that has been mental health and digital wellness advocacy.
She’s an incredible young woman. She was featured in the Facebook Files. When they did that article, they had Anastasia as her name and had this young woman who was talking about her experience on social media. She essentially stopped thinking of herself as this product or as needing all these likes on social media and dug into what she wants in life, what she can achieve, and what she can contribute.
She realized, “I can’t be shaken. It’s okay. Even if I get knocked down, I will get back up.” For kids and us who love them and can support them, help them find what that is for them. It doesn’t need to be grand. It can be, “I’m going to volunteer at my local YMCA every weekend and make a difference in one kid’s life.” It can be, “I’m going to take a chance. I’m going to camp across Europe.” We need to help kids decouple themselves from the sense that there’s some brand to sell and this ugly thing they have to do to get what they feel to get ahead and to recenter themselves and what matters to them, what gives them joy, and what gives them purpose.
Frank, we’ve always joked when people would ask us what our ten-year plan was in our careers. We would stay. When you are younger, you feel like you should know your 10-year plan or your 5-year plan. My advice to anyone would be, “That’s bull.” I had no idea when I was 21 that I would be on a show. Podcasts weren’t even around. The tech startup I’m doing, I didn’t know I would be doing that a few years ago. Whenever I get stressed, I’m thinking too far into the future. You can’t control too far into the future.
A good way to wrap up is coming back to Tracy, writing this book. She had a goal to write a book and deliver it within a year but what got her through it was every two weeks, she had to submit a chapter to her editor. Break down some of those big-picture goals. You can’t be president if you are not a good sales rep at an entry-level. Be good at that first, then go to the next level. When I was stressed, I would start thinking too far ahead of myself. The mountain felt very high. Instead of thinking, “Let me get to the next base camp. What’s the next base camp? I can control that. I can do something about that.”
You have the breakdown. You have social connections. I had this amazing editor. You guys have each other. I’m sure you keep each other going.
He writes me handwritten notes all the time.
I am an incredible coach to Frank.
You know that uncertainty is a possibility. It’s structure. It’s breaking it down. It’s broadening our best resources with each other and forging that. Knowing that it’s exciting, you can be nervous but you can be excited about that uncertainty. You can find possibilities. We have to give our kids the support to realize that all of those things are possible.
A life well lived includes anxiety. It must include anxiety but a life well lived to me includes an understanding of how to handle it. I own real estate, so with real estate comes debt. I’m not some rich person that saves tons of money. I have to raise either equity or debt. Both of them are basically debt. I remember shortly after the pandemic started, I was locked in my gorgeous house. I’m looking out the window and thinking, “The Earth is going to come spinning off its axis at any moment.”
It didn’t. We all made it. It’s still spinning. Even for people who are pretty well adept at dealing with anxiety, sometimes you need to give yourself a reality check and take a deep breath. Everything you said fundamentally, from a college student in their twenties or even with Ian when he was worried in his twenties to someone like you who dealt with heart failure in a child, these are big things, and you have to ground yourself quickly. You start to say, “What can I control? What can I not control? How can I work through it?”
For younger people that have read this, how do you not get surprised as much over time? How does anxiety have less of a toll each time you deal with it? How is it less stressful? Twenties are awesome because you are lean, fit, and skinny. For fat people like me, we worry about that. There’s angst too because you don’t have some of these things. You don’t take chips off the table. You don’t make life less. You give yourself a little bit of a cushion. The top of the triangle is more aspirational.
That’s where life gets to be fun. Maybe you don’t have some of the stuff you had earlier from physical or anxiety but you can build it. If you said, “Summarize this whole book for me,” I would say this. Anxiety is real. You shouldn’t avoid it. Lean into it. If you turn and allow it to push you, it can take you to incredible heights. What you gave us was a couple of hundred pages of more vocabulary around something that a lot of people tried to either medicate or avoid. That’s doing yourself with this service.
I love that, Frank. That’s beautifully said.
Tracy, both Frank and I read dozens of books every year, and a few stick with me. This is one that will stick with me for a long time. It’s a simple premise that you do a beautiful job of writing about and telling amazing stories about it. I’ve already talked to my kids about it. Here we are sharing it. If you are reading this, we highly suggest you go get it. You can get it on Amazon. Anywhere else where people can find you if they want to follow you?
My website is DrTracyPhD.com. I’m on Instagram as @Dr.TracyPhD. On Twitter, which I like to use once in a while, it’s @TracyADennis. That was back in the day.
I am no longer anxious about this episode, frankly. Tracy, how did we do?
It’s amazing. Ian and Frank, thank you so much for having me on. It was a great, fun, and insightful conversation. I learned a lot from you, guys. Thanks a lot.
We enjoyed it.
We appreciate you being here very much.
You have more degrees than any guest we’ve ever had on here. Congratulations. That’s impressive.
Thanks again, guys. It’s great speaking with you.
Thank you so much, Tracy.
- Wise Therapeutics
- Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good For You (Even Though it Feels Bad)
- Shoe Dog
- Amazon – Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad)
- @Dr.TracyPhD – Instagram
- @TracyADennis – Twitter
About Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D.
A professor of psychology and neuroscience at Hunter College, the City University of New York, where she directs the Emotion Regulation Lab, and is cofounder of the digital therapeutics company Wise Therapeutics. She received her doctoral and postdoctoral training in clinical psychology at The Pennsylvania State University and New York University School of Medicine. She has published over one hundred scientific articles in top peer-reviewed journals and delivered more than three hundred presentations at academic conferences and for corporate clients. Dr. Dennis-Tiwary has been featured throughout the media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, ABC, CNN, NPR, and Bloomberg Television. She lives in New York City.
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