Don’t Try To Prevent Anxiety. It’s Good for Teens!
Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary is a professor of psychology and neuroscience and the author of Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good For You (Even Though it Feels Bad). She argues that there are some significant upsides to anxious thinking and that teens can benefit from it – if parents allow adolescents to experience challenges and discomfort.
In this Q&A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has a wide-ranging conversation with Dr. Dennis-Tiwary about the surprising advantages of anxiety. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Allison Gilbert: How is anxiety misunderstood?
Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary: There are two common misunderstandings about anxiety. The first is that anxiety is dangerous and destructive and should be prevented at all costs. The second is that anxiety is a failure – a failure of happiness or our mental health — and needs to be fixed. Both are not true. Believing these falsehoods makes anxiety worse. It blocks our ability to find helpful ways to cope and prevents us from seeing that anxiety can actually be a tremendous help. Evolutionarily, it’s designed to protect us and energize us to be more creative, socially connected to others, and persistent.
AG: In what ways can anxiety be helpful to teens?
TD-T: Anxiety can help us all prepare better for the future. Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension that primes us to imagine and plan for an uncertain future. When we’re anxious, we believe that something bad could happen, but we also know, intellectually, that something good could happen instead. If viewed positively, anxiety can motivate us to make positive outcomes a reality. In this way, anxiety contains hope. For example, if your son is anxious about an upcoming test – ask him: What is anxiety telling you? Is it telling you that you care about this test and that you might have more studying to do? Your teen can use this information to take action, and once he does, his anxiety will quiet, letting him know he’s on the right track.
AG: You’ve written that anxiety can be a driver of productivity and creativity. In what ways?
TD-T: Anxiety inspires creativity because it keeps us focusing on future possibilities and motivates us to work towards what we really want in life. Research even shows that anxiety increases the quantity and quality of ideas and the ability to persist in problem-solving when obstacles arise.
AG: If the goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, then how can adolescents use it to fuel their well-being and success inside and outside of school?
TD-T: One way is for teens to change their mindsets. In 2013, researchers invited socially anxious participants to take part in an experiment in which they had to give a last-minute speech. Of course, this is an activity many of us would dread! They taught only half of the group a new mindset about anxiety – to reframe it as a signal that their bodies and minds were preparing to perform well under pressure rather than a signal of failure or panic. Those who learned this new mindset performed more confidently and had steadier heart rates and lower blood pressure than those who weren’t taught the same lesson. If we can help teens shift their mindsets – that anxiety can be a benefit rather than a burden – their bodies will follow suit.
AG: In your book, Future Tense, you say that feeling badly is tied to feeling good. What do you mean?
TD-T: Mental health is the ability to experience and tolerate difficult emotions, like anxiety, and learn to use them in helpful ways. When we “fix” anxiety-provoking situations for our teens, we block them from building the emotional skills they’ll need throughout their lives. Remember, teens are not fragile. They benefit from a challenge! It’s like physical fitness: If we don’t challenge, strain, and even stress our muscles over time, they won’t strengthen.
AG: How do you advise parents to recognize when their teen may need professional help?
TD-T: Anxiety disorders are diagnosed when the way a teen copes with anxiety becomes problematic – avoiding school, turning down opportunities to see friends, obsessing over details so much they can’t get anything done. To receive a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, these patterns need to be long-term and disruptive, so much so that a student stops socializing, taking on challenges, or meeting responsibilities. If you see this kind of behavior in your teen, it’s a good time to seek professional help.
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