How Embracing Curiosity Can Help Halt Anxiety
After a year of social isolating, you may be slightly nervous to venture out into the world. Perhaps the thought of hopping on a plane fills you with dread. Or maybe your social skills feel rusty, leaving you terrified to chat up a new date or co-worker. As you begin seeing friends, you may feel panicky about large gatherings, fearing the Delta variant could make you sick.
If you're feeling this way or experiencing any other worries, you may be grappling with "re-entry anxiety," feelings of hesitancy about resuming pre-pandemic behaviors--even when it's safe to do so. And as psychologists have discovered, re-entry anxiety isn't uncommon. For example, in a survey of 3,013 adults, researchers found that 49 percent of Americans feel nervous about in-person activities, even as the pandemic winds down, the American Psychological Association reports.
Like anxiety disorders, which affect approximately 18 percent of Americans, re-entry anxiety can trigger physical discomforts like a churning stomach, insomnia, racing heart, and sweaty palms. But just because you have re-entry anxiety doesn't mean it's here to stay. As a matter of fact, there's a psychological reason why worries remain, even once danger starts to fade.
"After facing an uncertain future, it's easier to believe something awful will happen," says Joel Minden, Ph.D., a psychologist in Chico, California, and author of Show Your Anxiety Who's Boss, A Three-Step CBT-Program to Help You Reduce Anxious Thoughts and Worry. And when we think catastrophe is imminent, we see anxiety as an actual threat, he explains. However, fear doesn't have to run the show. One way to halt anxiety is to replace it with curiosity, Minden explains.
What Does Curiosity Really Mean?
According to researchers, curiosity is the desire to take in new knowledge and experience. It's this mindset that can stop your anxious brain from thinking of every "worse-case scenario." Because whereas anxiety drives fear, curiosity invites wonder. And one recent study found that when we seek new knowledge, scary feelings like uncertainty shrink. Not only that but curiosity can also temper distress, make us less defensive, and less reactive to stress.
Curiosity also activates the same reward centers of the brain that light up when we learn something new or accomplish a goal. And like goal achievement and learning, a curious mindset can elicit a dopamine boost—the "feel-good" neurotransmitter that unleashes feelings of pleasure and joy. It's this combination of biology and psychology that can help beat anxiety, say scientists.
Ready to embrace your anxiety-busting, curiosity superpower? Here are some expert-backed exercises to try.