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Turn Anxiety into Your Superpower with Dr. Wendy Suzuki

Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University.

She received her undergraduate degree in physiology and human anatomy at the University of California, Berkeley in 1987 studying with Prof. Marion C. Diamond, a leader in the field of brain plasticity. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from U.C. San Diego in 1993 and completed apost-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health before accepting her faculty position at New York University in 1998.

Her major research interest continues to be brain plasticity. She is best known for her extensive work studying areas in the brain critical for our ability to form and retain new long-term memories. More recently her work has focused on understanding how aerobic exercise can be used to improve learning, memory and higher cognitive abilities in humans. Wendy is passionate about teaching (see her courses), about exercise (intenSati), and about supporting and mentoring up and coming scientists.

How do you turn your anxiety into a superpower?

If you’re like most people, when you hear the word anxiety, you probably don’t think of it as a gift. But what if instead of learning to simply cope with increased anxiety or prolonged stress, you could transform them into a superpower?

I’m excited to have Dr. Wendy Suzuki with us today. She’s a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at NYU and author of the brand-new book Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion.

Constant stress can actually shrink your brain, which is why learning to manage it is vital for prolonged brain health. Listen in as Wendy reveals simple tools to transform your anxiety so you can feel better, think clearer, and unlock your limitless potential.

Show Notes

The Benefits Of Anxiety

  • Before the pandemic, 90% of Americans said they experienced anxiety every day.
  • A huge number of people struggle with anxiety, which is why we have to address it.
  • Anxiety is actually a protective mechanism. It’s there to serve you.
  • Evolutionarily, anxiety and the underlying psychological stress response evolved to protect you from danger.
  • 2.5 million years ago, there were lions, tigers, and bears coming at your ancestors.
  • Anxiety was essential for survival.
  • If you’re thinking you don’t feel protected by your anxiety today, you’re right.
  • The volume of anxiety in modern life is turned up way too high.
  • Too much of anything, even a good thing, is bad.
  • The first step is learning how to turn down that volume so you can get back to the protective aspects that give you gifts, or superpowers.
  • One of these gifts is neuroplasticity.
  • Your brain has the incredible ability to adapt.
  • This ability is important because one of the most important tools to turning down anxiety volume is being able to shift your mindset about how you’re approaching anxiety.
  • Brain plasticity is a form of learning that is very evolutionarily beneficial.
  • If you have anxiety, you probably experience a ton of anxiety-provoking situations coming at you all the time.
  • This gives you a lot of opportunities to practice shifting your mindset to address all the different problems.
  • The more you practice, the better you become.
  • You can then use that skill to be adapted to all aspects of your life.
  • The more adaptable you are, the better you are able to live a better life.
  • Anxiety is a gift in this way because you have all these opportunities to test your adaptability.
  • Another way to look at it is an opportunity to become more emotionally fit.

Turn The Anxiety Volume Down

  • The number one way to turn the anxiety volume down is to activate the stress reduction part of your nervous system.
  • When you experience events that are threatening or scary, you activate your sympathetic nervous system, which most of you know as fight-or-flight.
  • But you also have a destressing part of your nervous system.
  • That’s called the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • The best way to activate that system is to breathe deeply and slowly.
  • Deep breathing is one of the oldest forms of meditation in history.
  • Monks didn’t know anything about the nervous system when they created this style, but they knew that it created calm in the body and mind.
  • Deep breathing also helps start another key practice that’s helpful in reducing anxiety: being in the present moment.
  • As your focusing on your breath, you can focus on appreciating the air going through your lungs and simply enjoy being in the moment.
  • Nothing else is happening or matters, you are present and calm.
  • Deep breathing is a long-lasting active coping response for anxiety, stress, and facing difficult situations.
  • It builds resilience.
  • But one of the best things about deep breathing is you can share it and practice with your family.
  • You can teach your kids to practice deep breathing when they’re at school and facing situations that stress them out.
  • If someone is talking to you and provoking anxiety, you can focus on deep breathing while they’re talking.
  • It’s something you can do any time and in any situation in order to help yourself.
  • In addition to calming you down, it also helps your prefrontal cortex work better.
  • If you activate fight-or-flight, your prefrontal cortex shuts down and if you’re in the middle of an argument or a test, you need the ability to make decisions.
  • So you want to do everything you can to really enhance and get your prefrontal cortex working as efficiently as possible.

Learn How To Condition Joy

  • Wendy’s favorite tool in her anxiety-reducing toolkit is called joy conditioning.
  • She created it to directly counteract the automatic fear conditioning that happens to all of us.
  • Fear conditioning is what happens when we’re in situations that frighten us.
  • Wendy remembers when her apartment was broken into and the fear she felt seeing her front door crowbarred in.
  • Every time she walked around the corner, she felt that surge of fear all over again.
  • It’s very hard to get rid of that fear response and it’s something that you automatically program to protect yourself.
  • Joy conditioning isn’t automatic, but you have conscious control in order to program it.
  • You start by mentally going through all of your most wonderful, funny, joyful, lovely memories in your life.
  • Many of us don’t think about these wonderful memories often enough.
  • Find one that has a good smell associated with it because scent has been linked with evoking strong memories.
  • You vivify the memory by thinking about it, so really focus on reliving that wonderful moment.
  • The more you repeat a memory, the stronger it gets. Every repetition will strengthen not just the memory, but the emotions that came with it.
  • You don’t use this tool in the same way you do deep breathing or moving your body when you feel anxious.
  • Those are ways to quell the oncoming anxiety.
  • To practice joy conditioning, you want to be calm and focused. Wendy practices in the morning and right before she goes to sleep.
  • One of the benefits of practicing before you go to sleep is you get to fall asleep to your most joyful, beautiful memories.
  • The more you practice, the more you build and fill your chalice of joy.
  • Joy conditioning changes your baseline state.
  • And just like deep breathing or movement, you can practice this with your family, friends, and team.
  • You can bring mindfulness into any area of your life, it doesn’t have to be an isolating experience.
  • Another benefit of practicing joy conditioning when you go to sleep is that it helps you feel safe.
  • You need to feel a certain level of safety in order to activate your parasympathetic nervous system to get into the rest-and-digest mode.
  • You can also practice joy conditioning by writing your memories down in a gratitude or joy journal.
  • No matter what’s happening in your life, you can relive your most joyful memories and change your state.
  • Wendy used joy conditioning to improve her sleep.
  • During the pandemic she found herself relistening to her favorite audiobooks.
  • They became her bedtime stories.
  • You can create your own personal bedtime stories by reliving your joyful memories.
  • You can author your own story, with a new chapter unfolding every day.
  • Anxiety is a tool meant to protect and serve you.
  • But like any tool, it can be good or bad, depending on how it’s used.
  • Be sure to check out the unedited, extended episode on YouTube, here.

Share With Us

  • Take a screenshot of this episode and tag us (@JimKwik & @Wendy.Suzuki) and share the subject of your joy conditioning memory.
  • I’ll repost my favorites and gift two copies of Good Anxiety to two lucky listeners.
  • You can get a copy of Good Anxiety, here.
  • Be sure to grab a copy of Wendy’s first book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain & Do Everything Better, here.
  • For more information on Wendy’s research and to hear more of her talks, visit www.goodanxiety.com.
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