Sep 7, 2022 • Podcast

Why is anxiety good for you? With Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary

You don’t want to miss this fascinating and powerful interview with Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. Along with so much other beneficial information, they discuss three tips to be anxious “the right way.”

Show Notes

Do you live in a constant state of anxiety? This can be a good thing…really!

“Anxiety feels like fear…so we often equate it with fear. But anxiety has nothing to do with the present tense. Anxiety makes us mental time travelers—into the future.” Dr. Tracy

“Anxiety is a helpmate in pushing us to strive to meet those future goals.” Dr. Tracy

We’re anxious for a reason and we need to listen to those signals.

“Anxiety prompts you to make a plan.” Dr. Tracy

Find out more about Dr. Tracy and her fascinating research at Order her book, Future Tense, wherever you get your books.

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Why is anxiety good for you? With Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary

(Transcribed from podcast interview)

“When we’re anxious, we actually are also better at persisting through obstacles, at problem solving in creative ways, because we know we have this goal we want to meet and we just keep going at it. We don’t let the obstacles stop us.” Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary

Paul: Hello everyone, and welcome to this episode of The Q and A Sales Podcast. Now, if you’re anything like me—. I remember early on in my sales career, every single month, I would see that new quota; every single quarter, I would see my targets and I would always ask myself, ‘How am I going to hit this target?’ Man, I would live in a constant state of anxiety. Well, turns out that that anxiety is actually a good thing. And I know many of you sellers out there, you’re asking questions, you’re feeling anxious about the future: “What does this look like? How am I going to hit my quota? How is this recession going to impact my performance?” I know, as salespeople, we tend to live in this constant state of anxiety. But again, that can be a good thing.

And I remember. One morning, Saturday morning, I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal, and this article was about a new book called Future Tense by our guest today, Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary. This book is all about the benefits of anxiety and how it can actually be a good thing for us, even though it feels bad—let’s face it. So, Dr. Tracy is going to join us. She is a PhD professor of psychology and neuroscience. She’s also the director of the Emotion Regulation lab and co-executive director of the Center for Health Technology at Hunter College.

Now her book is a #1 best-selling book. She’s been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times on ABC, CBS, CNN, NPR, The Today Show, and Bloomberg television. I hope you truly enjoy this interview as much as I did. It was great sitting down with Tracy and just talking about anxiety and how it can benefit salespeople.

I not only think that this episode and this message can help you become a better salesperson, but also a better leader, a better spouse, a better parent. It is such a powerful message. So, highly recommend. Make sure you pick up your copy of Dr. Tracy’s new book, Future Tense. You can find it wherever you get your books.

Now, another reason I wanted Dr. Tracy to join us today is because, in Selling Through Tough Times, I make the argument that tough times are good. And that a lot of the pain that we experience, a lot of the frustration we experience can actually lead to positive change in our lives. So we’re going to talk a little bit about that as well.

And also, again, unfortunately we are in a recession right now, so Selling Through Tough Times remains your go-to guide to sell and thrive in this downturn. So pick up your copy of Selling Through Tough Times—available wherever you get your books. Alright. Now it’s on to the interview.

Paul: Hello everyone. And welcome to another episode of The Q and S Sales Podcast. On today’s show, we’ve got a very special guest: Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary is joining us today. And, we’re going to talk about something that I know salespeople are thinking about all the time, and that is anxiety. So, Tracy, thanks for being on the show today.

Tracy: Thanks, Paul. It’s so great to be with you.

Paul: I want to share with the group, you know, this was right after Selling Through Tough Times just launched, and in the book I talk about how tough times are good, and I’m thinking about that. And then I’m reading the newspaper—Wall Street Journal—on a Saturday morning, sipping my coffee, and I read the article that you put together. Do you remember the title of the article? I have it clipped out. I don’t have it in front of me.

Tracy: Yeah. And this was—. I have to give the Wall Street Journal editors the credit for this: “In Praise of Anxiety.”

Paul: Yes. That— because, gosh, the hook on that. I mean, there’s so much behind that. And so that prompted me to, first of all, download your book, which was incredible. I found so many useful insights, not only for salespeople, but for being a parent, for my kids—a little bit of everything. It’s just one of those books that I’m going to keep at arms-length from now on. So, thanks for putting that together. And what I was hoping we could do is talk a little bit about anxiety and in the subtitle of the book: Anxiety is good for you. So, could you maybe share with the group maybe a little bit about anxiety and really tell us, okay, what does it mean, but also, why is it good for us?

Tracy: You know, and the title also adds another extra layer in there that I think is very complementary to what you’re saying. Anxiety’s good for you, even though it feels bad. (Paul: Yes.) So I do want to start by acknowledging that when I tell you, you know, anxiety’s good for you: in praise of anxiety. It’s sort of like selling you broccoli. And I know this is a sales podcast. I’m sure there’s some excellent broccoli salespeople out there. And it’s true. Anxiety is an emotion that we have that is designed to feel bad. So, I’m a scientist and a nerd, so I’ll start with a couple definitional distinctions that I think is helpful.

One of them is, anxiety, as we all know it, feels like fear, right? It feels like we’re in fight/flight. Maybe our heart’s racing, maybe we’re sweating, so we often equate it with fear. But anxiety is distinctly different because, while fear is our body and our mind’s response to a clear and present danger in the present—right? So it’s right there. It’s a dog about to bite you. And our body prepares to respond to that, right, with freezing, fight, or flight. And it’s a very useful emotion. That’s fear. But anxiety has nothing to do with the present tense. Anxiety makes us into mental time travelers into the future. So, we are anticipating that something bad could happen in the future, like maybe being bitten by a dog, but we also know when we’re anxious, it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s possible to avert disaster and make a good outcome possible instead.

So, while fear prepares us to handle the danger in the moment, anxiety prepares us to make our dreams come true, in a way—to make those positive possibilities into a reality. So anxiety really transcends the benefits that we can get from fear. And I think for salespeople, salespeople are always living in this uncertain future in some ways, because I imagine that there are always these deadlines and these sales quotas. And so, sales folks are sending their minds into this future, and planning and preparing. And anxiety, even though it can feel bad and get in the way of that, it is also a helpmate in pushing us to strive to meet those future goals.

Paul: That is excellent. Well said. Especially—. I’ve confused anxiety and fear so many times. And the way you describe that as fear is more of what’s happening in the present versus the future, that is—that’s genius. Love it, love it.

So, what I love to hear about, Tracy, is some of the positive aspects of anxiety. And really, the whole book is filled with examples of how we can benefit from anxiety, although it doesn’t feel good. Would you, maybe, shed some light on that—just some of the benefits of anxiety?

Tracy: Right, because if anxiety is making us into these time travelers into the future, what it’s actually doing is it’s drawing on this really powerful human capacity, uniquely human, to imagine what that future looks like. And it’s only when you can imagine that future, that you can really prepare for it. So, one of the benefits of anxiety, as we know, you know, when we worry or we make those lists, or we might feel like we’re starting to get a little more activated about things we have to do, it tells us that there’s a future we care about; it gives us that motivation often to prepare for, and plan for that future. And there’s wonderful research, published research, really using scientific experiments to show that when we’re anxious, we actually are also better at persisting through obstacles, at problem-solving in creative ways, because we know we have this goal we want to meet and we just keep going at it. We don’t let the obstacles stop us. And we actually—. There was one study by De Dreu and colleagues from 2013, where they actually showed that the quality of people’s ideas, their out-of-box solutions and innovative problem-solving approaches, were better when people were made to feel anxious, relative to feeling sad or happy or other kinds of emotions.

So anxiety helps us imagine more vividly. And anxiety also actually primes all sorts of physical responses that make us do a lot of helpful things when it comes to preparing for the future. One thing is that anxiety primes us to connect to others. So when we’re anxious, oxytocin, which is the social bonding hormone, starts to spike. And what that does is it makes us reach out to our human network, which is one of our greatest resources, really—reach out to people who we know can support us and seek that support. And, it’s really interesting, because anxiety—, one of the best ways to cope with anxiety that starts to feel overwhelming is to seek that social support. So in a way, you’re getting primed to reach out for a resource, but you’re also primed to help manage anxiety before it spirals out of control. So, it’s this sort of beautiful solution that anxiety contains within itself.

Paul: That’s so wonderful. And know, it’s interesting: healthy ways to deal (and manage probably is a better word) anxiety is you don’t want to ignore it. That’s something that is maybe not beneficial—and maybe you’ll speak more to that when we talk about being anxious in the right way—but you’re anxious for a reason, and so we need to listen to those signals.

And I think about salespeople—I coach a lot of salespeople—especially when they’re working on large deals where they’ll say to themselves, “Oh man, if I don’t get this deal, how am I going to hit my quota this year? What if the customer decides to go in a different direction?” But those emotions of that future tense that can compel them to act today: to prepare a little bit more, to do their research, to work harder in some ways. So we just, we don’t want to ignore it, right? Or do we, in some ways?

Tracy: Well, I think you made a beautiful point there. And I think this plays into how we have, as a society, started to think about anxiety. We’ve started to think about it as a danger signal, that when we’re anxious, there’s something wrong with us, or that it’s a malfunction. And if we have a job like being in sales, where, because of the uncertainty we face all the time, we’re going to feel anxious a lot. But then we start to say, “Oh, but something’s wrong with me if I feel anxious.” That’s, unfortunately, priming us to use many more of the unhelpful solutions when it comes to anxiety—things like avoidance, things like suppressing. Because when you suppress and avoid anxiety, what happens? It just boomerangs back stronger than ever.

The other thing that you miss—it’s really an opportunity cost because anxiety is not really a sign to panic, it’s a sign to listen, that there is, as you say, information, something I should be paying attention to. All of us have woken early wee hours of the morning with worries. You know, just this morning at 5:00 AM, I was up actually in bed thinking of, you know, things were going through my head. I was worried about a couple things. Now, if I took anxiety and worry as danger signals, I’d do everything I could to just, you know, kind of ignore that or maybe get up and exercise and pretend it never happened, or maybe just try to fall back asleep. But I know that anxiety, when I feel worries like that, it’s usually telling me something important, something I’m caring—that I care about in my life.

This particular worry was about a fight I’d had with my daughter, my 10-year-old daughter the night before. And it was just sort of going through my head and I knew I hadn’t approached that the way that I needed to. And I was missing something that, you know, would’ve actually been more productive and probably made both of us happier. And the minute that I started thinking that, my anxiety started going down. I made a plan. I decided, “Okay. When I actually get up out of bed, in a, hopefully in an hour or two, here’s what I’m going to say.” So anxiety kind of prompted me to make a plan. And once I had that plan in mind, my anxiety went down even further. And I said, “Oh. This means I’m on the right track.”

So anxiety, when it goes up, is telling you there’s something that needs your attention, that you care about. And when it goes down, it’s telling you something—that you’re maybe making some good plans, making some good decisions. And so, when we reject anxiety as a malfunction, we’re missing all of these chances to make better choices in our life. And as you say, to find more productive, active ways of coping with that anxiety, because sometimes we do need to cope with it. It can get very strong and even overwhelming at times, as we all learned, I think, during the pandemic, if not before. Everyone experienced anxiety during this two-year mass experiment. But, we can still use it even when it’s painful and powerful.

Paul: Absolutely. And that, gosh, at a personal level, I can certainly relate to that. When the pandemic first happened, you know, March 2020, I’m a professional speaker, so I make a living speaking in front of groups in live audiences, and we all know what happened in Spring of 2020. And I had, at some points, an overwhelming amount of anxiety. But it really was, you know, in hindsight, looking back, I paused, I listened, I accepted—trying to figure out what’s going on. And then I took action. And I have to believe that the benefits of anxiety there were telling me, “Paul, you need to do something different than what you were doing, at least for the time being.” And taking action, I noticed that I felt less anxious as things started to happen, as things worked themselves out to some degree. I look back and it’s the anxiety that really triggered the action that I took in some ways.

Tracy: I think that’s a great example.

Paul: Which brings me to the next question—. As I mentioned, when we were just chatting before the interview, my favorite chapter of the book was on creativity. This really spoke to me and how anxiety influences creativity.

Tracy: The feeling we get when we’re anxious, it is unpleasant. So no one likes to feel anxious. and I’m really not trying to tell people, “Hey, just white knuckle it through and don’t—. You know, just suffer through.” Here’s the thing. Being human is messy work and because we humans have been primed through evolution to detect uncertainty, and reward, and danger, these are feelings we get when there’s an opportunity in front of us. And so. when we’re anxious, there’s a space between where we are now and where we want to be. And it’s an uncomfortable space, but anxiety activates us to move through it.

Hope works in a similar way. And creativity is also inhabiting that space, because creativity is really bringing into existence something that has not existed in quite the same way before. So, it is also in that gulf between where we are now and where it’s possible to be. So, when we shift our mindset about anxiety and we say, “Hey, wait a second. Anxiety is this same family of reactions as hope, as creativity, as possibility.” When we realize that that’s all part of our human, I won’t say armament, because that makes it weapon—it kind of weaponizes it—but our toolkit. It’s really part of our human toolkit. We start to realize that we can use and leverage and own anxiety in ways that will make it easier for us not to feel like anxiety is owning us. Because the truth is anxiety, and we saw, during the pandemic, sometimes we were able to be productive and, as you did, like really see opportunity in it. And sometimes it’s just overwhelming. And you know, there’s no shame in just needing sometimes to say, “Hey, I can’t be a super human, perfect robotic, you know, all or none.

And here’s the thing though. Mental health is not all or none. Mental health is not the absence of difficult feelings, of negative feelings. Mental health is the ability to know that you can go into those negative feelings—sometimes they’re going to knock you down right on your butt, but to have the perseverance to know that you can also get back up again. And you can heal and you can imperfectly go through the world and do still do amazing things. So I feel like with creativity, when we are using that anxious apprehension, that sense of possibility, it can fuel us to try things that we never would’ve tried before, if we can turn towards rather than away from anxiety.

And it can be in simple things. You know, I tell a story in the book about having an anxious moment when there was nothing in the house, in the middle of the pandemic, to cook for my kids for dinner that night, except some wilted cauliflower. And, you know, if I had kind of given into that anxiety—I really wanted to give up at that point, I was exhausted. We’re New Yorkers and we like to order in dinner every once in a while, but that was not happening at the height of the pandemic at that moment. So all I had was this wilted cauliflower, and starving children.

It’s a funny example, but I think it rings true. I use that anxiety. I had that worry. I wanted them to have a healthy meal. We wanted to do something together as a family. So I, I got online. You would be surprised at how many cauliflower recipes there are out there, and we whipped up some cauliflower fritters and it was, you know—. And it’s funny to say that anxiety helped me through that. But I didn’t despair when there was nothing in the fridge. I still had hope. I still felt like I could do something about this, and we could even make it into a family bonding moment. And I think anxiety was my friend and my ally in that particular moment.

Paul: For sure. Well said. So we’ve talked you’ve sold us on broccoli and cauliflower now at this point, Tracy.

Tracy: Oh boy! This is a little strange now.

Paul: Yeah. Oh, but that’s great. As you said it, anxiety was your friend at that point. Oh, that’s great. And, one of the last things wanted to talk to you about is, how can we be anxious the right way? Because it’s hard to make it black and white, but you give us three principles really to focus on, to help us be anxious the right way. So maybe for, you know, salespeople and sales leaders, small business owners that listen to this podcast as well, would you maybe share a little bit about those three principles or three ideas to help us be anxious the right way as we close things out?

Tracy: Yeah, absolutely. And I will preface briefly by saying often in a, in the beginning of a conversation like this, I will make the important distinction between anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Because, you know, many, many of us struggle with anxiety disorders. And when I’m talking about anxiety, I am talking about the emotion of anxiety. And I do want to say, though, that I believe these principles really still hold true, even if you have an anxiety disorder, which means that, if you’re diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it means that the ways that we’ve come to cope with those anxious feelings and the uncertainty in life are starting to get in the way.

So if you’re a salesperson and the anxiety of your job demands and the changing world become too much, and you start to cope in such a way that say you avoid taking meetings, you’re not putting in the work that you need to because it’s so overwhelming. You just get in this avoidance mode. If you stop seeing friends and family, because you’re sort of turning in on yourself and really being overwhelmed. These ways of coping with anxiety are getting in your way of living a full and productive life. That’s when an anxiety disorder is diagnosed. It’s not just because you’re having a daily experience of anxiety, even struggling with it. So there is that distinction.

But the problem is that whether it’s normal anxiety or an anxiety disorder, we have this huge PR problem with anxiety right now, because we really think it’s dangerous, that any anxiety means I’m broken, or I have a disease. And that is setting us up for failure instead of having more productive, successful approaches to handling anxiety, which is how we started the conversation. It also plays into the three principles, which I really end the book with—really with the goal of just asking people to consider having a different view of anxiety and to try some different ways of working through it in your life.

So the very first principle is, don’t treat anxiety as a malfunction, but think of anxiety as information—useful information. So just listen to it. So carve out time in your life to actually, instead of pushing it away immediately, to engage a little bit, even if it’s for a few moments, engage with your anxiety on a regular basis. Kind of like I described you know, early morning waking worries. That’s an opportunity to engage with your anxiety for a few minutes. Take a deep breath, allow yourself to have all those thoughts come washing over you, and see what rises to the surface. See what kind of information you might be able to glean from that anxiety. So that’s really just the first principle. It’s information. Give it a chance and listen to it.

The second principle, though, also acknowledges that sometimes anxiety isn’t useful. Sometimes, you know, it’s spiraling. Sometimes life really does just, you know, knock us down and it’s just too much for us to turn that radio knob and find the signal in the noise. And at those times, we should draw on the tools that so many of us have in our toolkit and maybe we don’t even realize it, to remove ourself in a way, or back down from the future tense, which is where anxiety sends us for a moment, and immerse yourself in the present. Meaning whether it’s exercise, sports, talking to a therapist, listening to music, writing poetry. I actually love to write poetry. It’s not very good poetry, but it just puts me in this mindset where I sort of let everything go. And I just let my mind work in a different way. Some people love to take walks. Whatever it is, you know what those things are for you. And you, are—. You know, you actually, probably have more power than you know—even when anxiety is overwhelming—to use those tools and to sort of find a nourishing present moment that you can allow yourself to take a breath again. So that’s the second step.

So, after you’ve listened to anxiety’s information, listen to it if it is useful. If it’s not useful, you’re letting go of it and trying to come back to the present moment with whatever tools you have at your disposal. And then the third step is, okay, let’s loop back and see if there’s anything useful that remains in anxiety. If it’s information, let’s hitch it to a sense of purpose, to a goal, to something that gives us, really, a sense of meaning in life, that gives ourselves a sense of value. So if you’re a salesperson, it might be, “Hey, okay. I’m having anxiety about this wacky world we’re in right now. I have to make these sales goals. But my anxiety right now is energizing me. I’m going to use it to push through some obstacles. I’m going make some lists. I’m going to, plan and prepare for the future. I’m going to do that extra, go that extra mile.” And so, if you hitch it to your goals in the sense of purpose, it can really be an ally.

It could be a small goal and sense of purpose, too. Maybe it’s that you want your family to become more involved in community activities because you know, that’s going to be good for everyone. Use your anxiety. Maybe you’re worried about your kids or your own health, or, you know, use that anxiety to actually propel you towards making choices that are meeting those goals. Things that give you a sense of meaning and, and that this is the right track and for you and your family and your community.

So again, when we think of anxiety as helping us on that, rather than something to make go away very quickly, so we can get back to living, I think we’re missing a huge opportunity to acknowledge that anxiety is actually part and parcel of being human. It’s not this external thing, like a disease, an infectious disease to somehow make it go away.

Paul: Well said, Tracy. That’s great. This has been so helpful for the podcast community. You know, even deeper than that, people that are, that are struggling with anxiety, maybe they don’t have a disorder, but they’re just feeling this, this constant state, or this weight on them, sometimes they suffer in silence and they’re not sure what to make of it. I think your book is a great tool to help. It’s part of building that toolkit. But even this interview, too, is going to be super helpful. So, thank you so much for being on the show today.

And just out of curiosity, if people wanted to learn more about you and what you do, where could they go to find more information?

Tracy: Thank you, Paul. I think a good place is my website, And you can learn more about the book there and my research and all sorts of other things like upcoming speaking engagements as well.

Paul: Awesome. That’s great. And again, the book is Future Tense. I imagine you can get it wherever you get books. Is that right? (Tracy: That’s correct.) Alright. Well, good stuff. Highly recommend it; really enjoyed it.

Make it a big day.

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