Aparna Nancherla When you’re a kid, you don’t really fully understand that the way you see the world is not the way everyone else sees the world. You kind of assume your template is just whatever everyone else is working with as well. And I didn’t really have the words for anxiety or it wasn’t as culturally thrown around when I was a kid. So I think I just thought, you know, life was hard and scary and everyone else just seemed to be coping with it a lot better than I did.
Like everything for some reason took me like a little bit more effort and wherewithal than like when like my peers, things like swallowing pills, or meeting a new dog, or roller skating, learning to ride a bike….. like everything that you’re just like, oh, the adventures of being a kid. I was just like, this is terrifying.
Yeah I have a lot of anxiety. I don’t know, I feel like it’s weirder to not have anxiety than to have it, because I feel like if you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention. You know? Like I feel like if you open a newspaper today and skim maybe three headlines, you’re just like seems cool. What? Everythings on fire! Even the newspapers on fire, what are you so chill about?
I would say my general anxiety kind of shows up in the same way of just feeling that I am going to make a fool of myself or just make other people sort of disgusted with me. But it will be about just everyday tasks, even like buying a coffee and making small talk with the barista. I’ll be like, oh my gosh, you said the dumbest question or whatever it is. I take it too far in my head.
Dacher Keltner We know from a variety of publications that anxiety and depression have risen dramatically during the pandemic, possibly doubled. And for many of us, myself included, it’s also something we’ve dealt with throughout our lives.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to The Science of Happiness. Today we’re going to explore a new way to cope with anxiety by leaning into it, rather than trying to repress it. And here to join us is comedian, writer, and actress Aparna Nancherla.
Later in the show, we’ll hear from Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a psychologist and anxiety expert, about how to look at anxiousness through a new lense
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary Anxiety can be an ally, but like any ally you need to negotiate.
Dacher Keltner More, after this break.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Today we’re focusing on something that more of us have been feeling lately than ever before: Anxiety.
Our guest today, Aparna Nancherla is a comedian, writer, and actress in New York City whose stand-up often focuses on her experience living with depression and anxiety. She joined us today after trying a practice designed to help us think about our anxiety in a new way that, hopefully, will help us suffer less from it. Aparna, thanks so much for joining us today.
Aparna Nancherla Yeah, thanks for having me
Dacher Keltner Since anxiety is so central to your humor, when did you really start to realize like, oh, I get it. I’m kind of an anxious person and this is just part of who I am.
Aparna Nancherla I was a kid of two immigrants from India. And I think, you know, they were very much of the generation of just assimilation and trying to blend in. So I think early on, I learned not to be too big about my feelings and kind of play everything close to the vest. So I think when I saw examples of anxiety and culture. it seemed a lot like you know, like it’s very outwardly focused and you can see how nervous the person is. And because that didn’t really fit me. I think mine is just very internal and yeah, it all kind of goes imploding versus exploding.
Culturally now we’ve just sort of gotten to this place where there are so many spheres that feel like they’re kind of spiraling, whether it’s the environment or politics or just, you know, the economy or the pandemic. And I think anxiety has become almost like a shorthand of being like, “Okay, all of these things are going badly. At least we can all admit we feel really bad about it, even though we don’t know what to do.”
Dacher Keltner Yeah. It’s almost like saying I live in this strange time.
Aparna Nancherla Yeah. Like a sort of collective way of checking in with each other. It might make you feel less alone, but in the moment, it’s not necessarily going to make you feel less anxious.
Dacher Keltner We asked you to try this practice in sort of being at peace with anxiety that we created with Dr. Tracy Dennis Tory, who has a new book out about anxiety.
And the practice is based on this idea that, you know, what we really can focus on is how to change, how we think about our experiences of anxiety and what you do as you ask yourself what you’re feeling anxious about right now. So when you write, take a few moments to write it out, and then you ask yourself, you know, is there something I can do about this thing that I care about? And if you can, then you do it. And then if not, you do a practice like breathing that sort of calms you down. How did you follow those steps in your approach to changing your thinking about anxiety?
Aparna Nancherla Well, I mean, the nice thing was that, you know, it was like, take a moment when you’re feeling anxious. And I was like, okay, I can really do this at any time. A lot of mine shows up around work. So basically before I start any task or like if I have to go to a meeting or jump on the phone, like there’s just always a rush of dread. The really helpful thing with this exercise particularly was the “writing about it” part. At the beginning, it kind of made me have to parse out things like “what outcome are you so afraid of?” And then when I did it, I was like, oh, once I break it into concrete tasks, or what do I want to happen. This actually doesn’t feel as overwhelming.
Dacher Keltner What’d you write about? Do you remember?
Aparna Nancherla I think one of them was about, I was shooting just a day on an independent film. And I think I wrote, “You know, I’m afraid I won’t be funny on set,” or like “I won’t remember my lines and I’ll be like wasting people’s time.” And then I was like, “No, you memorize your lines. You know how to be, like, funny around other people. You’re, like, pleasant to work with, you’re not rude.” So it just helped to remind myself of like, you’ve done these things before, and you’re not like someone else who’s, like, just coming in completely unprepared or unaware of what’s going on.
The part of the exercise of looking at your anxiety as sort of a positive motivational force was really interesting because I do think my anxiety is very much tied to not letting other people down, trying to make a good impression and, like, make other people pleased with me.
I can’t even talk to babies without getting self-conscious, Like the whole time I’m just like, “Ah! What if I’m not an interesting shape or color!” You know?
And so I was like yeah, I think I maybe care too much sometimes of what other people think or like giving it way more meaning than it should have over how I feel about myself.
I think there are a lot of, I don’t know if it’s an American cultural construct on humans confidence and outgoingness and that is always preferable. I just think it couldn’t be that only the cavemen who are charging straight for the saber tooth tiger were the only necessary ones. Like you definitely needed a couple of people, stay back and be like, “Yeah, I’m going to sit this hunt out.”
Dacher Keltner Can you give us an example of how these different strategies that are part of this practice of, like naming it, thinking of what you can do, recognizing there’s stuff that you can’t do anything about, like, controlling where the airplane goes or whatever it is. Can you give us a specific context in which you tried one of these practices and what that was like?
Aparna Nancherla Yeah. I’m also working on a book right now fittingly about self doubt and imposter syndrome.
Dacher Keltner Have you written anything?
Aparna Nancherla I know. I was like, if really if this book was just completely blank, it would be accurate.
But no, yeah, I’ve thankfully I’m in sort of the homestretch, but I do find that I panic before I start working on it. I panic while I’m working on it and then I panic after I’m done working on it. I think it’s just I’ve created sort of the ultimate vacuum of anxiety. But I tried the exercise for that, and it was helpful to just take a few minutes to be like, “what are you trying to get out of this work right now?” And like, “What can you control in terms of getting it done?” And I think as a perfectionist, the hardest part about writing is being like, “oh my gosh, this is the best sentence I can write? Come on. This is just not good enough.” So I think just acceptance and like making peace with what is and like what’s happening in the moment is sometimes most of the battle.
I think I’m learning one thing that is always helpful with anxiety is doing a breathing exercise or a grounding exercise. And I find when I’m really anxious and just in general a lot, when I’m going about my day, I’m not really in touch with my body. I feel like I’m just like a sort of floating head. And I forget that there’s like more of me. And then when I’m sort of just like, you know, forced to take a moment, and like, feel into the rest of me. It actually is kind of just calming in the sense of you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m not just like a series of thoughts of catastrophizing. I’m here at this moment and everything is actually fine right now.”
Dacher Keltner You know, Aparna, one of the things that’s emerging in the clinical literature, you know, is we if you look at the history of clinical science, like there was this deep interest in psychosis and schizophrenia, like the dramatic ones, right? And then with the SSRI revolution, we were really interested in depression. And now we’re really thinking a lot about anxiety. It was one of these unspoken conditions that really people suffered from a lot like I did. And I’m curious knowing what you know now, what would you tell the young Aparna about her mind and her life?
Aparna Nancherla I think, yeah, when I was younger, I contextualized my anxiety as me being weak versus just sucking it up and getting on with it. And I think it would have really helped if I just told myself, you know, actually everyone’s scared and no one really knows what they’re doing. And even the people who are most outwardly seem super confident and gung ho charging ahead, like I think they might have just constructed the most elaborate front. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that there are any more equipped than the rest of us. Like, if anything, I’m more authentically living the human truth.
Dacher Keltner Well, Aparna Nancherla, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about anxiety and doing the practice. And thanks for being on the show
Aparna Nancherla Thanks for having me. Thanks for a great conversation.
Dacher Keltner Anxiety can feel like a terrible disease, so it makes sense we’d all want a magical cure for it, right?
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary We have skills when it comes to emotion, especially like anxiety. So when we think of it as a disease, it’s an opportunity cost in terms of turning towards this experience and learning the skills to navigate.
Dacher Keltner That’s psychologist Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, an anxiety researcher who created the practice that our guest tried today. We’re going to hear from Tracy about the science, and why anxiety can be a sign of hope for the future. More, after this break.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’ve been talking about anxiety and how to cope with it. And how for most of us, anxiety feels like something we need to prevent or avoid.
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary And the problem with that story is that it makes us more anxious about anxiety and really primes us to do more of the unhelpful things when it comes to anxiety and fewer of the helpful things.
Dacher Keltner Tracy Dennis-Tiwary is an anxiety researcher and psychology professor at Hunter College. I spoke with her about the research that led her to conclude that anxiety is really a sign of hope for the future. Tracy is the author of the new book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good For You (Even Though It Feels Bad), and I highly recommend it, especially for those who live with lingering anxiety. Here’s a part of Tracy and my conversation:
You know, we throw around the word anxiety so much in terms of clinical issues. And I’m feeling anxious and climate anxiety and how do you define it?
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary Anxiety is nervous apprehension about the uncertain future. And this is really important. It’s making us into mental time travelers into the future, where we have to use one of the great achievements of human evolution, which is the ability to hold in mind and to simulate the future, something that has not happened yet, and to hold in mind that there could be something bad coming around the bend, but there could also simultaneously be something good, And what anxiety does in terms of information is it tells us there’s this uncertainty, but it’s priming us to navigate that uncertainty, to avert disaster and to make the positive possibilities into reality.
Dacher Keltner You know, the sense that you get from certain wellness programs or positive psychology or whatever the case may be, is that, let’s live an anxiety free life. And you would suggest that that’s actually a terrible mistake, and it leads us down the wrong path. How do you think about that?
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary Yeah, I think it would be a disaster. Number one, because it’s impossible. And anxiety is a feature of being human. And because it’s information we have about the uncertain future and thank God we have that information, I kind of think we might still be in caves if it weren’t for anxiety. It inhabits that same space that creativity does. It’s that bridge between where we are now and where we want to be.
One analogy I love is the analogy of a smoke alarm. And the smoke alarm goes off in your house. Now, we could just put earplugs in or go to a different room in the house, or we could, you know, but that’s not what we do. We also don’t necessarily take it as a call to panic, but we take it as a call to investigate.
What anxiety does is it’s saying, okay, you have this uncertain future. And when you’re anxious, it’s telling you that you care about that future because you can’t ignore it and you need to investigate. When you think about anxiety as this information that you really need to pay attention to, you also realize that it means that you’re still hopeful about that future..
Dacher Keltner It’s interesting. I mean, Lincoln was famously anxious. Our greatest president, Charles Darwin, was profoundly anxious. We need to have agitated uncertainty about what the future could be. That’s how futures get better, right.
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary And emotions because they’re a motivation, they’re they’re energy. That energy needs somewhere to go. And anxiety happens to be an activating emotion.
And it’s one that doesn’t just trigger, you know, autonomic, fight flight sort of. It increases oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Oh, yeah. We scientists don’t always ask these questions, right? Because we’re like, oh, it’s the threat detection and response system. Why even look at oxytocin? Well people have looked at oxytocin. And what you find is that with especially with, you know, not necessarily full blown panic, but with moderate levels of anxiety, you actually increase levels of oxytocin, which primes us to seek out social connection and support. Right. So it’s almost like a fractal beauty that within anxiety it contains some of its own solutions.
Dacher Keltner It’s amazing. A challenge that a lot of this literature faces is just, you know, when you talk about somebody who’s really suffering profound anxiety or deep panic attack. How do you think about that?
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary We could have frequent and pretty strong anxiety every day and not be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The key difference is that the disorder is diagnosed with functional impairment, which means that the way that we’re coping with those intense feelings are disrupting our ability to live our life fully and well and to our end in ways that we want to. So what that means is that it’s not so much that we have a crisis with anxiety as we have a crisis with our coping with anxiety.
Dacher Keltner Wow. So I’m going to get concrete coming out of that idea. A lot of the young people and personally, myself, too, and a lot of friends are going through more fluctuations of anxiety. And I’m curious, coming out of this conceptual analysis that you’re offering of the utility of anxiety and the necessity of it, what are like two or three things that you can do if someone’s like, “oh, I’m feeling kind of anxious about the future.” What do you recommend?
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary I do give three principles that I think can help.
Dacher Keltner Nice.
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary So the first principle is anxiety is information. Listen to it. Then, that’s the whole thing we’ve done. But the second principle is, sometimes anxiety is not useful, let go of it and immerse yourself in the present again. Let go of that future tense.
And then the third principle is, if you’ve circled back to anxiety, you’ve let it go for the moment. But you’ve come back and you’ve decided that there’s some useful information about the world, things you care about, the future, hope, then hitch it to a sense of purpose. And so I’ll give a very small example of how this might play out.
So my son is seven in seventh grade, he’s 13. And just the other day, his big math test was coming up and he said, “Mom, you know, I studied for this math test. I thought I studied the right amount. I’m really worrying about it. I’m anxious.” And he said, “Hey, you wrote the book about that. Hey, you’re the expert. What should I do?”
I said, Well, first of all, it sounds like you care about this math test, because, you know, we’re only anxious when we care about things. And I said, okay, so what are you worrying about? What’s the information here? He said, “I don’t quite understand it, so I don’t actually feel prepared, even though I studied a lot.” and I said, “okay, well, is there something to do about that? The test is tomorrow.” He said, “well, you know, I could study for ten more minutes. Let me give that a try.” And then he came back, he said, “hey, I’m starting to not worry so much and my anxiety is going down.” I said, “oh, well, I think that means you’re on the right track.”
Now, that’s a simple story. It wasn’t a sort of a crisis situation, but it was pretty big for him. We knew it was information about what he cared about in the world, not a signal to panic. It was a call to action, and he was able to hitch that to a sense of purpose that he was able to pursue. And actually, because he cares about math, it gives him meaning in life.
So it’s a process. It’s like a wave, right? You can drown anxiety. You can drown in that wave. You can learn to swim. And maybe if you keep working at it, you can surf. It’s like that’s what it is in our life. We can think about it that way. I just think we’ll do more of the helpful things and fewer of the unhelpful things.
Dacher Keltner Well, Tracey, Dennis-Tiwary, thank you so much and thank you for your book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for Us, Even though it Feels Bad. I think a lot of people will be finding allies and new forms of empowerment in the anxiety that’s part of our 21st century. And I’m grateful for your work. Thank you.
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary Thank you so much, Dacher. I’m so grateful to have spoken with you.
Dacher Keltner You can find instructions to try this surfing anxiety practice and learn more about Tracy’s work in our show notes.
On our next episode, we hear from a formerly incarcerated person about the power of creating your own positive memories, and making the most of really tough circumstances.
[Speaker] This will not be the end of my story. I will not be known for only this. I went in as a caterpillar. I made a cocoon. And I came out of Butterfly. Strong butterfly.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. What do you think about this Surfing Anxiety practice? Share your thoughts with us at happiness pod-AT-Berkeley dot E-D-U, or use the hashtag happinesspod. Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. And our associate producer for this episode is Elena Neale Sacks. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.