In this age of overwhelming anxiety, society sends us the message that we must attack it like we do any life-threatening disease — prevent it, avoid it, and stamp it out at all costs. This is the disease story of anxiety that we tell ourselves. But what if we were all wrong about anxiety? In the book, I argue for the perhaps radical idea that anxiety is not the enemy — it is our ally, because when we tap into our anxiety instead of attack it, we immediately multiply our inner resources, not just for surviving, but for thriving. Although of course anxiety can become debilitating in the context of an anxiety disorder, but we have evolved to be anxious because in a typical range, it is both protective and productive, propelling us into future thinking, where we are smarter, more focused, and more hopeful in the face of challenge. When we learn to embrace our anxiety and teach our families to do the same, we harness the superpowers inherent in the future tense and step off the path towards debilitating anxiety.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tracy Dennis Tiwary
Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D. is CEO and Co-founder of Wise Therapeutics, a digital therapeutics company translating cutting-edge science into digital tools for mental health, including the stress- and anxiety-reduction app Personal Zen. She is also a Professor in Psychology and Neuroscience at The City University of New York. An NIH-funded researcher, she is an internationally recognized leader in the study of anxiety, emotional health, and technology and wellness. Her forthcoming book with Harper Wave, Future Tense: Making Anxiety Our Superpower, challenges misconceptions about anxiety and shows that anxiety can be a source of strength by propelling us into future thinking, where we are smarter, more focused, and more hopeful in the face of challenge.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I am a clinical psychologist by training, and then retrained in neuroscience as a postdoctoral researcher. But before all that I was — of all things — a classically trained oboist! I fell in love with psychology while training at the Eastman School of Music. During college, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a research center exploring risk and resilience in children experiencing adversity, including maltreatment and abuse. Many of these children had faced simply terrible things in their lives, and while many were struggling, they also remained hopeful, creative, and retained that spark of childhood delight. I found myself fascinated with the question of how? How could they not only survive but thrive? Where did this resilience come from? For months, I was getting up every morning caring more about that question than my orchestra rehearsals and recitals, so I switched my major to psychology and never looked back.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
Once I became a tenured professor — and had a child at the same time! — I felt free to explore the intersections between the ivory tower and the world of creativity. One of the most interesting experiences that’s happened to me has to do with my ‘second act’ as a digital therapeutics entrepreneur. The moment I realized I was ready to take the leap was at a banking conference of all things — not something I’d ever been to before! I found myself in the audience for a presentation by a young, black-turtle-necked woman, who was the CEO of a digital health company that had developed a new blood testing method. I remember thinking to myself, wow, people are eating this up, but I’m seeing much more ‘big talk’ than actual data here. I guess that’s Silicon Valley for you …..
That CEO was Elizabeth Holmes, whose now-defunct company Theranos was found to have committed fraud by falsifying data and making false claims about its technology. That experience really drove home to me why we need good players and real data if we are going to realize the promise of digital health to make healthcare better and accessible to all.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I started out as a scientist, my biggest mistake is one I’m still working on — I tried to do too much. I had just been hired as a tenure-track assistant professor. As a research-focused academic, my job — and how I would get tenure — was to publish or perish and get lots of grants. So what did I do? I started a completely new area of research — the neural processing of emotional information using EEG. This was really not a great idea, as what I needed to do was hit the ground running and get productive. But my wonderful colleague James Gordon, a leading vision scientist and all-around mensch, was a true mentor to me. He let me use his old EEG system, which was running on DOS (!), and walked me through as we nurtured it back to working condition. I conducted my first study on neural processing of emotion using that system, got pilot data, and applied for my first big grant. I got the grant, and was able to build a program of neuroscience research. But it was a big risk to divert my focus of study just as I’m starting out. The good news is that I was extremely lucky and the risk paid off, leading to the next 15 years of fulfilling and productive research.
This tendency to do too much in the early days was almost always borne from my excitement about ideas and possibilities. I said yes to almost everything. I believe in saying yes to opportunity, and saying no to things I don’t like to do has never been a problem for me. But knowing when to say no to something that is inspiring and full of possibilities? That is both very important and very hard. For me, if I don’t reign in my instincts to pursue exciting idea, I lose focus and compromise my ability to go deep.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
After graduate school and a decade into my career, I discovered that despite my best efforts, I felt a deep sense of failure. Decades of research has helped us understand so much about what causes mental health problems and how to treat them. Yet, all too often, we don’t give people treatments that they can actually use. Instead, most of our evidence-based treatments are too expensive, too time consuming, too hard to access, and perhaps most importantly, deeply stigmatizing. Back in 2010, I was pregnant with my second child and talking to my husband, Vivek Tiwary, about my frustrations and discouragement. He turned to me and said, “Why don’t you build an app for that?” I literally laughed in his face. What a cliché! There are too many ‘apps for that’ already, honey! But then I gave it some thought, and realized he was right. That was the summer I started down the path towards becoming a digital health entrepreneur. As a scientist, I never thought I’d move in this direction, but I realized this was the only way to push past the walls of the ivory tower. I started (during maternity leave) developing and doing rigorous research on my stress- and anxiety-reduction app, Personal Zen, which is a brief, highly accessible micro-intervention embedding cognitive treatment approaches for anxiety into a mobile, gamified format. So, I’m very grateful to my husband for that initial spark and for unstintingly supporting me every step of the way since.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
When I was first inspired to become a psychologist, it was the question of how to promote resilience that really hooked me. I also found myself obsessed with trying to figure out perhaps our biggest challenge as a field — how do we shift away from giving people treatments that we think they should use and giving people solutions that both work and that they want to use. Back in 2010, digital therapeutics seemed to hold the most promise here, but it was and continues to be a revolution in search of a manifesto. Where are our guiding stars? Our ethical center? Moreover, using technology in the service of health is a very sharp, double-edged sword, with high potential costs and benefits. These costs are largely due to the elephant in the room — digital technologies have not been designed for our health and well-being. They have been designed for corporate profit. As a result, digital experiences designed for “engagement” are really just designed to keep us looking at our screens to click and buy more. We’re all feeling the exhausting burden of this.
So I created my stress and anxiety-reduction app Personal Zen to take a fundamentally different approach. To do this, we pursue what you might call the Four Pillars of Personal Zen:
- Science: From the beginning, we scientifically tested the effects of Personal Zen. Now, five randomized clinical trials later and counting, we are constantly working to provide a scientifically honed tool, not snake oil.
- Effortless: Personal Zen is designed to be non-invasive, used on-the-go, and no therapist required. Our goal is to bring barriers to an absolute minimum so that taking the first step towards mental wellness and stress reduction is easy and seamless.
- Micro-intervention: Personal Zen is all about the power of small. No need to get stuck on the screen for hours — we already struggle with that! As a micro-intervention, our research shows that the “active dosage” to reduce stress and anxiety is about 20–40 minutes a week.
- Delight: Pursuing mental wellness should be delightful, not stigmatizing, not demoralizing, and not cold and clinical. Personal Zen is designed to be a beautiful, elegant experience that you can reach for anytime.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
- Explore emotions with curiosity not judgement. Suspending judgement about our emotions is key, because our feelings about our feelings are the crux of what gets us tied up in emotional knots — ‘it’s not ok to be jealous; it’s weak to feel sad; it’s unkind to be angry, etc.,…’ Listening to and accepting sadness, fear, or rage without judgement gives us permission to truly feel them. This is the first step towards learning how to work with our emotions. Some of my best stories about this are my epic parenting fails: When my 8-year-old daughter became painfully afraid of bugs after we started sheltering-in-place a couple months ago, I gave my ‘fearless’ girl a hard time. Only when I stopped judging her and accepted her feelings did I realize that she was afraid of bugs because, as she said, they are “tiny things that can get into your body and make you sick.” It shouldn’t have taken a degree in psychology to see how similar that feels to the devastating and deadly threat facing our world, the coronavirus.
- Ask what a negative emotion is telling us. Fear, anxiety, sadness, and other negative emotions signal that something is not right and, more often than not, that there is an opportunity for growth. Negative emotions don’t make us fragile, they make us stronger when we engage with them. Listening to our difficult emotions leads us down productive, illuminating paths. A month into shelter-in-place, my 11-year-old son seemed listless, emotionally flat, and uninterested in activities he used to love. He seemed to be feeling something but was pushing it down. When we sat with him and invited him to explore his emotions, he rebuffed us at first. After several conversations, though, he burst into tears and admitted that since one of his teachers died, he feared that a family member might die, too. Although painful to admit, he felt a huge sense of relief and we were able to help him cope with those troubling but natural feelings.
- Create joyful routines and moments for savoring. I find that routines help me create more moments of calm and infuse my day with moments of joy. Routines are good for all of us, but are especially helpful for children to find structure in their day and make room for a good balance of relaxation, fun, and work. I am careful to keep routines flexible — I don’t say, ok, it’s 3:10, time for our daily walk, drop everything! Yet, just having an expectation in place is helpful. My daily routine these days include a few key ingredients — regular long dog walks, time for exercise every day (even if it’s 5 minutes, which it often is), take time to look around and savor something, make time for gardening, which brings me joy and a sense of peace, and always have dinner and catch-up time with my family.
- Believe in nudges and the power of small. The science of behavior change and building new habits is clear on this — small changes and goals that build on capacities that we already have and allow us to take small steps towards change are much more effective than big, overwhelming goals that we are highly likely not to meet. With those over-ambitious goals, when we eventually fail, we start to believe that change isn’t possible and take more steps backward than forward.
- Laugh at yourself whenever possible. This is self-explanatory ☺.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It’s funny you should ask, because my forthcoming book with Harper Wave is all about that: Future Tense: Making Anxiety Our Superpower. In this age of overwhelming anxiety, society sends us the message that we must attack it like we do any life-threatening disease — prevent it, avoid it, and stamp it out at all costs. This is the disease story of anxiety that we tell ourselves. But what if we were all wrong about anxiety? In the book, I argue for the perhaps radical idea that anxiety is not the enemy — it is our ally, because when we tap into our anxiety instead of attack it, we immediately multiply our inner resources, not just for surviving, but for thriving. Although of course anxiety can become debilitating in the context of an anxiety disorder, but we have evolved to be anxious because in a typical range, it is both protective and productive, propelling us into future thinking, where we are smarter, more focused, and more hopeful in the face of challenge. When we learn to embrace our anxiety and teach our families to do the same, we harness the superpowers inherent in the future tense and step off the path towards debilitating anxiety.
So, in this book, I hope to lead readers to adopt a new mindset about anxiety — a fresh set of beliefs and insights that allow us to explore and leverage anxiety rather than be overwhelmed by it — through real-world examples and stories combined with the latest research in psychology, neuroscience, genetics, biology, and sociology. It is a quest is to spark a powerful, new understanding of anxiety that gives rise to out-of-the-box solutions, as well as boosts the effectiveness of existing approaches. The best solutions in the world won’t stick if our view of anxiety unintentionally accelerates it.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Reaching for perfection is one of the biggest barriers we face — it’s keeps us from advancing and from seeing opportunities and taking chances that can pay off.
- When in doubt, tell the truth. Sometimes we don’t know what to say, or regret something we’ve done or might do. We become immobilized. I find that when we take a chance to (kindly) say what we really feel, and embrace the possibility of being wrong, difficult moments almost always become easier and more authentic. Authenticity can lead to more connection and better solutions.
- Community makes us stronger. I tend to be super independent, but the older I get, the more I realize how much I benefit from the help of others and am ready to ask for it.
- Listen well. I’ve always had to work at listening. I’m full of ideas and have so much to say. But taking the space and time to hear others not only benefits me but build trust, understanding, and deepens relationships. We become an ally to others when we listen.
- Have a sense of humor in all things, but don’t tease. Framing tough things with humor comes naturally to me, and always makes me feel better. I realize now, however, that when I was younger, this humor could take a teasing form. My belief is that teasing can often be passive aggressive and dilutes some of the healing power of humor.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
I have been a vegetarian since I was 12, so this is an issue near and dear to my heart. I became vegetarian after having read Diet for a Small Planet. This prompted me to truly absorb the reality of what meat is and the path to get it to my plate. I learned about the ecological implications of the meat industry, as well as the cruelty with which animals were treated. It was as if a switch was turned off and I never wanted to eat meat again. It’s not willpower at all. I am an animal lover, so looking back at 12-year-old me, I think it was the cruelty part that convinced me more than the environmental argument. I do not feel it’s appropriate to impose my vegetarianism on others, although I’m very open about it and try to minimize animal products in my life. It’s been satisfying to see the world come around to more plant-based eating over the past 30 years, and I hope this trend continues. Awareness has grown so much.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights!