In our constant pursuit of well-being, we often perceive anxiety as an undesirable emotion. Anxiety, however, can serve as a valuable tool, guiding us through appropriate risks, helping us manage setbacks, and ultimately contributing to the development of resilience. This is the premise explored in Tracy Dennis-Tiwary's new book, "Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You Even Though it Feels Bad."
I had the privilege of hearing Dennis-Tiwary speak at last year’s annual NAIS conference. I was interested in her research on the positive aspects of anxiety and the valuable lessons it can impart. In an era dominated by an “achievement culture” where stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide rates are reaching unprecedented levels among both students and adults, Dennis-Tiwary invited us to consider her belief that anxiety is actually a positive emotion that can be productively managed in schools.
Dennis-Tiwary began by making a crucial distinction between anxiety as a feeling and anxiety disorders as serious health issues that demand appropriate attention. While clearly advocating for the treatment of clinical conditions, she cautioned against the common inclination to shield students from any experience of anxiety. Dennis-Tiwary suggested that our efforts to eliminate anxious thoughts and feelings may inadvertently be counterproductive.
By reframing non-clinical anxiety as an emotion capable of helping us anticipate the future, Dennis-Tiwary invited us to consider its potential as a powerful tool. She explained that the uncertainty inherent in anxiety prompts us to envision various scenarios, plan for different outcomes, and stay mentally and physically alert before significant events. In essence, anxiety serves as a compass, guiding us toward what truly matters and compelling us to focus our efforts on achieving the best possible outcomes. Dennis-Tiwary contends that making anxiety our "ally"—listening to it and working with the cues it provides—is a fundamental skill for cultivating resilience.
Dennis-Tiwary did not, however, advocate for the mere acceptance of anxiety in students. On the contrary, she proposed building scaffolding to assist children in developing their capacity to tolerate anxiety. Introducing the concept of "antifragility," Dennis-Tiwary emphasized that students can increase their capacity to thrive as a result of experiencing anxiety. To foster antifragility in our schools, Dennis-Tiwary recommended shifting our focus from cultivating achievement and passion to instead helping students find a sense of purpose. By supporting them in navigating their own paths, developing identities based on their contributions to the world, and growing in confidence to work through challenges and failures despite anxiety, we can, she said, equip students to navigate uncertain futures successfully.
Embracing anxiety as an integral part of the educational journey, we empower our students to build resilience, face challenges, and confidently embrace the unknown.
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