The following is a transcript of LearningWell Radio’s interview with Wendy Suzuki on her book “Good Anxiety.” You can listen to the episode on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Dana Humphrey: This is LearningWell Radio, the podcast of LearningWell magazine, covering the intersection of higher education and lifelong well-being. I'm Dana Humphrey.

Marjorie Malpiede: And I'm Marjorie Malpete, and we're the hosts of LearningWell Radio.

DH: Dr. Wendy Suzuki is a neuroscientist at New York University, where she also serves as Dean of the College of Arts and Science. Her primary area of research is neuroplasticity, and recently her work has focused on understanding how aerobic exercise can be used to improve learning, memory, and higher cognitive abilities. She's the author of Healthy Brain Happy Lice, a personal program to activate your brain and do everything better, and Good Anxiety, harnessing the power of the most misunderstood emotion. She's had appearances on CBS This Morning, WNYC, Big Think the Moth, she has a TED talk, and now she's joining us on LearningWell Radio. Wendy, thank you so much for being here today.

Wendy Suzuki: Thank you for having me, Dana. 

DH: Good Anxiety discusses how we can make everyday anxiety work for us rather than against us. And we will definitely talk more in depth about that. But the last time I saw you was at the Coalition for Transformational Education's conference in March,

where you gave an electrifying presentation on the effect of exercise in the brain. It really set the house on fire. I have never had that much fun during a presentation at a conference. We all stood up, we went through some of the exercises that you have your students do during class. So I just wondered if you could give a bit of background on that. Why did you decide to start bringing physical activity into your classroom, and how did that process go? Were the students receptive? Did you notice a change in how they learned or how you taught them? 

WS: Yeah, this all started when I got interested in the effects of exercise on the brain because I had I had realized I wasn't moving at all in my life and I was feeling run down and stressed and also I didn't have friends outside of my own lab and I said I don't know how to gain new friends but I do know that I can go to the gym and at least feel more physically strong and so I went to the gym and I ended up really changing my regular workout habits and I felt really great. And right about that time, I needed to teach a new class and I thought, oh, wouldn't it be fun to learn about the effects of exercise on the brain since I'm noticing all these great effects on my life,

on my mood and on my memory and on my focus and it wouldn't be fun to really dive deep with the students. And so I at developing that class. But then I found the thing that really gets me going is going to the gym and finding a great class and moving with a whole bunch of people. And so I thought, wouldn't it be fun to actually bring exercise into the classroom? And so I immediately ran to my departmental administrator and said, hey, could I get some money for to hire an exercise instructor so I could bring exercise into the classroom? And they said, no, no, you're you're the teacher, you teach the class. And so I went back to my desk a little dejected and I thought maybe I'll train to be an exercise instructor and I will teach the exercise part of the class too. So then I went back to my administrator and I said, "Hey, would you pay for me to go train how to teach exercise at the gym and then teach in the classroom?" And they said, "Yes, we will." And so I went and I took training fitness,

uh, teaching class at the gym, and it was so much fun. And, and I, at the same time, I was developing this new class and, and I thought, wow, make, I could turn this into a study. Maybe I could test the effects or test their baseline effects of mood and reaction time before and after this class and see whether our regular workouts, which were going to be once a week, did any difference. And so this turned into a class that I called "Can Exercise Change Your Brain?" And you asked me whether it changed the classroom. I will never forget the very first day of that class that I ever taught.

It was in a classroom where I taught for 15 years, a typical classroom with lots of seats in it. All the seats had been pulled out, it was a completely empty classroom. I walked in, I was worrying head to toe Lululemon, which I usually don't do in classroom. And I was feeling really nervous because while I'm very comfortable lecturing, I had to actually teach an exercise class to these students for the very first time. And I'll never forget all the nervous laughter. I think they were quite scared when they saw me walked in the classroom in Lululemon and they realized, oh my God, I have to work out with her. But I must say that completely transformed to that classroom. It eliminated that invisible wall that's always there between the talking head at the front of the classroom and all of the hopefully learning heads in the rest of the classroom. And we had such a great time. And so that's what made me realize, oh my gosh, I've got to do this in my lectures. There's no better way to, as you say, electrify or dries a room than to make everybody stand up and they don't know exactly what's going to happen and then they have to do a little dance to Taylor Swift.

That's how that came to be. 

DH: It was so much fun at the conference. It really left such an amazing impression and there was quite a bit of nervous laughter when we were going through the exercises as well. Although I think it was all based on, "Gosh, I'm going to look so silly doing this." But it was so much fun. As you alluded to, and you talk in the intro to your book about how your own anxiety about how you were feeling led you to try and experiment with ways to feel better, including exercise and nutrition. But it also led you on this path to exploring the difference and distinction between good and bad anxiety. So anxiety has bad rap. Can you explain how anxiety can be a force for good in our lives? 

WS: Yeah, so I think first and foremost, it's really important for people to realize that anxiety is a normal human emotion. We all have it. There's nothing abnormal about anxiety. It's one of the more uncomfortable emotions, but in and of itself, it is part of our natural human set of emotions. But the other second thing, it's a little bit better, is that anxiety evolved not to annoy us, but in fact, you might be surprised to learn that anxiety evolved to protect us. And good anxiety is the idea of getting back to the protective aspect of anxiety and trying to leave the bad rap, as you say, of anxiety on the doorstep. And the first important step that I'm sure everybody's thinking about is, oh my God, there's no way this can be good. It's just so overwhelming. And I totally agree. Anxiety in our society today is overwhelming. The level is too high. And in fact, for most of us, too high to be protective or helpful. So a lot of my book is first showing us how to turn down the volume of anxiety note that I never say I'm going to get rid of it because you can't it's a normal human emotion but there are so many approaches and techniques and tools that one can use to turn the volume down and that is the first step And I think that can be helpful to everybody listening to listening to this

podcast So a few years ago. I'll just go in a little aside here for a it. I had the opportunity to work with somebody who I, it was sort of a coach and I took a bunch of personality tests and one of the personality tests came back that I had high access to anxiety. And you get these results back and you're reading through them and I'm like, that doesn't sound very good. But I was walking through them with this coach and they were talking about how it actually was a good thing that it's eyes and ears for danger that you're talking about that when something is not quite right,

you see it, you're expecting it. So it wasn't all bad. So I was thinking about that so much as I read through this book about that experience of learning that anxiety can be a good thing.

DH: So, as you know, LearningWell is focused on issues around college student well-being, including student mental health. And I was struck when you were in the book talking about this relationship between stress and anxiety and resilience,

because I think resilience is a term that gets thrown around a lot when we talk about Gen Z mental health or the younger generation, they don't have resilience, yadda yadda yadda. Can you talk about the relationship there, between stress and resilience? 

WS: Yeah, I think that's such an important relationship because we all have stress. And I think the key element is that the stress that we all go through in our everyday modern life, that is actually the building block to our resilience and talk about flipping a bad thing into good. So the stress that you go through that you get through that can instead of just wearing you down think of it as building up a wall to your resilience and being able to get through next time even a harder thing because you got through this medium hard thing And that really points to another topic that I talk about a

lot in the book, which is mindset. How we approach our stress and our anxiety -provoking situations in our life is so strongly influenced by the mindset that we have.

Is this a terrible burden or is it a challenge that I'm going to give myself today to see whether I could reach that challenge. And in reaching it, really celebrate.

That is an achievement that I was able to attain. There's so much in my life that I have switched in terms of just the mindset that I approach it with. It is transforming in the way that you wake up in the morning and that you approach the world. But that's the core right there, switching your stress response into a building block for your life's resilience.

DH: Yeah, I loved that. I think we all talk about moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, and I think that's a pretty well-known term, but I loved this idea of this activist mindset that you brought up, that you can choose to change the things in your life. 

WS: Absolutely, and it is activist, positive that I think if you're saying, oh, I don't know how to do it, the other way you can ease into it is use your friend and relationship network. There are, I guarantee there are people in your life that on both sides,

some that are negativity things and some that have a wonderful mindset, maybe not about everything, but about certain things and maybe about things that you have as a challenge in your life? Can you look around? I've had so many kind of mindset models, particularly in my science career. Being a neuroscientist is really competitive and there's a lot of pressure around grants, but I've always admired those scientists, really that had fun with their science that approached everything about their work with this sense of curiosity and joy, and use that as a model if you're not finding it easily in yourself. And I guarantee, just look around, be a little bit observant, and you will find those people to be your activist mindset /positive mindset role models.

DH: Yeah, I love that. And it's so funny. I think it comes so naturally to some people and there are other people, probably myself included, where you definitely have to work at it. As our listeners are largely in academia, professors, student affairs professionals, administrators, those who work with students, how can they take the wisdom from your book and apply it to their work with students? 

WS: I think number one tool is particularly in the book Good Anxiety, the last third of the entire book is a toolbox to decrease your anxiety, to lower the volume on your anxiety. And all of you out there, advisors, people in student affairs, deal with stressed out, highly anxious students. It's the age that we are working in. And they need tools to approach it. And these were designed and they were written to be actionable. And yes, all of them are science-based, but some of them are easy to use. One of my favorites that I use often in my own life is call your funniest friend.

Call the friend that makes you laugh or go visit them in their dorm room. Things that you know will put you in a better mood. That's the quickest way to flip your anxiety.

Maybe that's too social if you're too deep into your anxiety, but that's where you can turn to your favorite music, your favorite show, things that make you smile,

things that make you laugh. I even bring this into my Instagram feed that has a large number of puppies and kittens and beautiful pictures of locations and art. And no, I don't stare at people that have better houses and better cars And I do. I stare at beautiful locations and puppies and kittens that always make me smile.

DH: I love that idea. I think one of the things that we hear all the time and we've heard in our work for years is specifically around faculty feeling uncomfortable about having these conversations about mental health because they are not mental health professionals and they don't want to cross a line. One of the things I love about this book is the framing of everyday anxiety and taking that away from the clinical anxiety. I think there is this tendency specifically now with the young adult mental health crisis to pathologize normal feelings that we all have. And I think that this book does such a good job of taking that back and taking that idea of anxiety is a normal feeling that we all have. And how do we deal with it on a normal level instead of immediately taking it to a clinical perspective?

WS: Yeah, I think of it as closing the door on that clinical perspective. I don't have an MD, so I cannot speak to clinical anxiety, but I could speak to everyday anxiety because I have plenty of experience with that. And what I would encourage all the professors and all the administrators that counsel those professors is to be personal. Have you dealt with anxiety? Maybe you dealt with certain kinds of anxiety when you were a student. Share those experiences. Nobody's asking you to diagnose and treat somebody with clinical anxiety. But the ask is that we all need to show a higher level of empathy, because there's much more of it out there than there ever was either when we were in school or even just five years ago, for example. And everybody can do that. Everybody can be empathetic. Everybody can share their own experiences with anxiety, funny, or serious. Both are useful. And it's just a challenge to to think about how can I find an appropriate way to help these students? Because I know each and every faculty out there wants their students to learn. And sometimes it requires some creativity around the levels of anxiety that comes up around certainly exam time. 

DH: Sure. And I, you know, another thing I just loved is when you talk about good anxiety can lead you to do all of these amazing things. It helps push you. And there was this feeling in the book of you can harness that anxiety, that good anxiety. 

WS: Exactly. What I like to describe is a three-step process to get to good anxiety.

One is to learn how to turn the volume down in your own anxiety. Nobody can function particularly well when anxiety is too high. So that's where the movement, walking,

a great walk is a quick, immediate way to decrease your anxiety levels. And this is not a wives' tale. This is from clinical studies showing that a 10 -minute walk can decrease your anxiety levels, breath work is one of the fastest ways also to quell your anxiety, and then all the tools in the last third of the book. Second, we haven't talked about the second step of good anxiety and it's a really important one,

which is understanding why you might be having these feelings of fear or worry that is the definition of anxiety. And when you ask yourself that, where does that get you? That flips you over to the reason for that worry, which is your values, the things that you hold dear. So I might be super, super worried about money and my next paycheck and whether I'm gonna pay for college or can I buy house that I want to buy and you could be subsumed with anxiety, but it says that your kind of financial stability is very important to you. There's nothing wrong with that. And it's, in fact, it's useful to understand what you hold very dear to you, whether it's financial stability, nothing wrong with that, your relationships, maybe there's a lot of anxiety around, around friends or family members, whether it's your job, of course, that means worry about job, means that you want to do your job, that you want to be seen, and you want to do a great job. Often on the flip side of that worry is something beautiful that you hold dear, and that also was my personal realization as I was writing the book, and it really does help me flip the story on that fear or that worry. That still comes up normally, I'm a normal human being, but it's, oh yeah, I have always just needed a certain level of financial stability or a certain kind of group of friends to feel good.

And then the third step is to transform your anxiety into a gift or superpower and that is the flip to good anxiety. And the easiest example is turning a catastrophizing what if list that we all have had in our brain into a to -do list.

And this takes advantage of the fact that your what if lists aren't about irrelevant things. They're about very relevant things in your life. And flipping it to a to do list makes you more productive and uses that worry about things that you hold dear and puts it to use.

So that's my favorite and easiest-to-apply superpower of anxiety, which is turning a what if list into a to do list. 

DH: I definitely will be using that one because first of all, I love the word catastrophizing. I used it all the time, but I have a tendency towards that. I will definitely use that going forward. I also love lists, but I just wanted to quickly circle back because I think this idea of reflecting and understanding yourself and who you are and what makes you tick is such an important piece of this. So I really appreciate everything you said about that and what drives you and what drives your anxiety. But overall, I just really want to say thank you so much for this book. It was such a wonderful tool, and I will definitely be passing it along. I encourage all of our listeners to read it, but also to look at your TED Talk and, self-promotional plug, to watch your incredible presentation at the Coalition for Transformational Education's conference because it was truly a highlight. Thank you so much, Wendy, for coming to join us on LearningWell Radio. 

WS: Thank you so much for having me, Dana. It was a pleasure. 

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