Future Tense | Tracy Dennis-Tiwary

Summary of: Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad)
By: Tracy Dennis-Tiwary


In the book ‘Future Tense: Why Anxiety Is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad)’, author Tracy Dennis-Tiwary takes a deep dive into the realm of anxiety, shedding light on its complexities, manifestations, and various coping mechanisms. The summary unravels the intricate nature of anxiety, the journey from normal anxiety to anxiety disorders, and the evolutionary purpose behind anxiety. Additionally, it explores the difference between fear and anxiety, the usefulness or lack thereof, of avoidant behaviors, and the role of anxiety in personal growth. Presented in a user-friendly language, the book summary aims to demystify complex concepts related to anxiety and offer an engaging read to help individuals navigate through their own anxieties.

Taming the Anxiety Beast

Anxiety impacts us all, manifesting through physical sensations and uneasy thoughts. However, it’s not the anxiety itself that’s the issue, but rather our unhealthy ways of dealing with it that can lead to debilitating anxiety disorders. While millions of people are affected by these disorders, very few overcome them through therapy. To address this, we must adopt healthier coping mechanisms for managing anxiety.

We all know what anxiety feels like – from butterflies in our stomach and a pounding heartbeat to a tight throat and recurring thoughts. It’s an all-too-familiar bodily sensation accompanied by a barrage of unsettling thoughts like apprehension, dread, and worry. Anxiety often arises from the anticipation of negative events that haven’t occurred yet.

Though it varies in intensity, we usually have the ability to talk ourselves through anxiety, until we reach a point of comfort and control. However, when we start to rely on unhealthy thoughts and behaviors to manage or avoid our anxiety, the problem eventually worsens. Consequently, normal anxiety can morph into an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are characterized by functional impairment, which obstructs our ability to lead a normal life. Prolonged distress can derail our daily lives, from home and work to personal relationships. Alarmingly, nearly 20 percent of adults in the US are affected by anxiety disorders each year, and 31 percent will face one in their lifetime. Despite these staggering numbers, less than half of those treated show long-lasting improvements.

This lack of progress is often linked to our poor coping strategies. Take, for example, a teenager named Kabir, who became afraid to speak in class. Before giving presentations, he’d avoid eating, lose sleep, and worry incessantly. As his fear grew, he started to dread school and eventually avoided social situations altogether. This resulted in his grades dropping, friendships fading, and the onset of severe panic attacks.

Kabir’s journey led him to develop social anxiety, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and panic disorder. However, his anxiety wasn’t the real issue; it was how he chose to cope. By evading his anxiety through unhealthy habits, he only made it worse. To amend this cycle, we must explore healthier ways of dealing with our anxiety.

In subsequent chapters, we’ll delve into more effective coping mechanisms that will empower us to manage anxiety proactively and improve our overall well-being.

Embrace Anxiety, Enhance Performance

The Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) is a method for evaluating the impact of social anxiety on individuals. However, a Harvard study revealed that when participants were taught to view their anxiety as a sign of preparedness and read about the benefits of anxiety, they felt less anxious and more confident during the test. By altering our beliefs about anxiety, we can shift our physiological reactions and understand that anxiety can serve as a helpful tool in overcoming challenges.

If you’ve ever been told to prepare and present a short speech in front of a panel of judges, while being videotaped and compared to others, you can relate to the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). This test, designed to induce stress, is particularly challenging for people with social anxiety. In addition to the speech, participants are asked to perform a complex math problem out loud, with judges urging them to go faster and start over when a mistake is made.

In 2013, researchers at Harvard University decided to investigate the impact of anticipating anxiety and understanding its benefits before participating in the TSST. Participants were informed that their reactions were actually signs of being energized and ready to face challenges. This response, they were told, evolved to help our ancestors survive by delivering blood and oxygen throughout the body. They also read several scientific studies highlighting the positive aspects of anxiety.

The result? Those who learned about the constructive nature of anxiety before taking the TSST reported feeling less anxious and more assured. Their physiological responses also changed significantly; relaxed blood vessels and healthier, steadier heart rates were observed. The participants believed that their anxiety was supportive, rather than damaging, which led to observable changes in their bodies.

This groundbreaking study underscores the importance of shifting our perceptions about anxiety. By being more open and curious about this emotion, we can recognize its benefits and minimize its harmful effects. Doing so doesn’t require embracing or loving anxiety, but rather questioning preconceived notions about its impact on our lives.

Understanding that anxiety can actually help you perform at your best will empower you to harness its potential and use it to your advantage. When faced with a daunting challenge, instead of being weighed down by nervousness, your anxiety can support you by allowing your body to respond in a healthy and adaptive manner. By changing your beliefs about anxiety, you can transform it into a resource that helps you excel in difficult tasks.

Taming Your Anxiety

Anxiety, though often confused with fear, is different in that it is associated with imagined future threats. It can be helpful when providing actionable information but can become overwhelming when it presents itself as a helpless feeling. To overcome paralyzing anxiety, the key is to immerse oneself in the present moment and break free from the vicious cycle to regain control of our thoughts and actions.

Anxiety and fear may seem alike, but distinct differences lie beneath the surface. For instance, you may have once felt startled by a surprise encounter with a furry creature in your attic. This immediate response is fear, a reflex driven by an actual danger. Once the situation is resolved, you calm down, and the fear subsides.

However, anxiety lingers and makes you feel apprehensive about uncertain, imagined dangers, like reaching into boxes in the attic fearing another similar experience. It’s the unsettling state of anticipating something bad to happen, which can make it difficult to bear.

Anxiety can be helpful when it offers information that influences your actions in the present or near future. Recognizing the difference between useful and paralyzing anxiety is crucial. For example, anxiety-driven thoughts about a personal issue, an upcoming work presentation or home repairs can serve as a signal, nudging you to plan and act accordingly. This form of anxiety is beneficial.

On the other hand, anxiety can also make you feel overwhelmed and helpless, like awaiting results for a medical test. Trapped in this powerless state, the anxiety morphs into a destructive force with no immediate solution.

When confronted with overwhelming anxiety, the best option is to set it aside—not to suppress it, but rather to temporarily take a break, intending to revisit it later. More often than not, you might find that it has subsided or become more manageable.

Research indicates that immersing oneself in the present moment is the most effective way to loosen anxiety’s grip. For instance, taking a walk in nature and focusing your full attention on your surroundings can provide the space needed to break the anxiety cycle. Notice the intricate patterns on tree barks, the sunlight filtering through branches, and the delicate veins of leaves. You might even listen to music to engage your mind in the present fully.

Taking this time away from anxiety enables you to return with a refreshed perspective, better equipped to analyze and determine its usefulness. As a result, you’re more likely to either find a purpose for the anxiety or reduce its impact on your wellbeing.

Taming anxiety is about understanding its nature, differentiating between beneficial and detrimental forms, and learning how to navigate it. By immersing yourself in the present moment, you can break free from anxiety’s grasp and regain control, making it an empowering, manageable aspect of your life.

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