How can students make the best of their anxiety?
World-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki discusses her most recent book titled Good Anxiety: The Power of Harnessing the Most Misunderstood Emotion.

I stood in front of a book cart that my colleagues and I call “recovery”—misplaced items that need to be put back in their respective places. I glanced at my watch and read 6:04 p.m. Three more hours until my shift at the local bookstore ended for the day. The store was quiet, except for Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You playing in the background. A trace of roasted Starbucks coffee beans mixed with the smell of new books lingered in the air. 

My mind raced with my plans for the week as I grabbed a book from the cart. Would I be able to catch up on my lectures when I get home? How would I split my studying for my upcoming epigenetics test? When could I start my paper that was due the following Monday? I put the book back where it belonged. What day could I fit a career counselling appointment in my schedule? Did I check-up on my loved ones that day? 

I took another book from the cart and paused at the wave of thoughts I was experiencing. The book rested in my hand. The longer I let my thoughts wander, the faster my heart beat, and the more anxious I felt. I hurried to the cash desk, grabbed a piece of receipt paper, and scribbled a quick to-do list. I shoved the paper inside my pocket, let out a sigh of relief, and focused on the book I had been holding titled Good Anxiety: The Power of Harnessing The Most Misunderstood Emotion by Dr. Wendy Suzuki. I smiled. 

Ever since watching her famous TED talk, which now has more than seven million views on YouTube, Dr. Suzuki has become an inspiration to me. She is a professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University. She is also an internationally recognized expert on neuroplasticity. Dr. Suzuki was recently named “one of the 10 women changing the way we see the world by Good Housekeeping and regularly serves as a sought-after expert for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Shape, and Health,” as stated on her website. 

When I read more about Dr. Suzuki’s research and her first book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better, in my first year of undergrad, I became a big fan of her work. I later decided to pursue a specialist in neuroscience at UTM. Now in my third year and after reading Good Anxiety, I had the wonderful opportunity to discuss it with her.

I first asked Dr. Suzuki about the concept of “good” anxiety. “Anxiety and the stress response evolved to protect us,” she said. Dr. Suzuki also highlights the importance of shifting one’s mindset around anxiety. We need to ask ourselves, “how can I make it work for me?”

According to her, the first step to having good anxiety is learning how to turn our anxiety levels down. In her book, she mentions that students often reach a level where their performance is impaired due to their high anxiety levels. To avoid reaching this state, Dr. Suzuki suggests breathing deeply using a box breathing technique to naturally activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This technique involves inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, and then exhaling for another four seconds. It’s easy to remember and can be used “right before you’re going to take an exam or before you’re going to have a big study session,” states Dr. Suzuki. “Or in the middle of an anxiety-provoking conversation. Nobody even knows that you’re doing it.” 

Dr. Suzuki’s second tip is to exercise. “Every time you move your body, it’s like you’re giving your brain this wonderful bubble bath of neurochemicals,” she adds, explaining that these include serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins. Studies show that these neurotransmitters immediately improve mood and decrease anxiety—even after just a 10-minute walk. Not only does regular exercise help decrease anxiety, but it also enhances long-term memory and focus, which helps students retain information more easily and for longer periods of time. 

I was fascinated by her studies showing that exercise is, as she says, “the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today.” She describes that the hippocampus, an area in the brain that is vital for learning and memory, gains brand new brain cells and increases in volume with regular exercise. According to a 2017 study, exercise improves prefrontal cortex function and therefore protects the brain from neurodegenerative disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Moreover, exercise improves our mood. 

Dr. Suzuki and I also discussed the concept of “flow.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, describes flow as a state of complete absorption and engagement. In this state, we perform at an optimum level with an almost effortless state of mind. In Good Anxiety, Dr. Suzuki explains “micro flow” as a shorter, but more frequent flow state that can help us enjoy any experience throughout our day. She describes micro flow as a “superpower of anxiety.” 

After reading more about this, I reflected on the states of micro flow throughout my day—most notably during my neuroplasticity class, where I was fully engaged with my thoughts. Many students can benefit from reflecting on instances of flow or micro flow throughout their week. We can use these to figure out what we are passionate about, which in turn helps us decide what to focus on for our future endeavours. 

Inspired by a successful lawyer she met, Dr. Suzuki wrote about turning the “what if” list of worries that students have into a to-do list. She suggests acting on the worries you can control by looking for coaching, asking a friend to list your best qualities, and getting as much information as you can. For me, I noticed that even scribbling a quick to-do list on a receipt paper at work helped me manage my worries and focus on the present moment. 

Dr. Suzuki’s final message to students emphasizes finding the reasons and joys behind our effort to learn. “Everybody right now, take one minute to think about what is joyful to you about the learning that you’re doing in this endeavour,” she concludes. “The joy and the inspiring part is what you get to learn.” She advises students to ask themselves what we appreciate in learning. “Tell yourself why. Remind yourself why.” 

Just as Dr. Suzuki inspired me to find my interests, pursue further research in positive neuroplasticity, make the best of my anxiety, and remember my motivation behind choosing further education, I hope she inspires you too. For more information about Dr. Suzuki, her books, and her research, please visit www.wendysuzuki.com.

Watch Massa’s interview with Dr. Suzuki:

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