Curiosity, in a nutshell, is the quest for new knowledge, and according to psychologists, it's a superpower against anxiety. Here's how to use it.

By Juli Fraga, Psy.D.
July 19, 2021
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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.

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Try wonder-spotting.

If you're weighed down with re-entry dread or anxiety in general, grab your camera (or phone camera), go outside, and look at the world through a different lens, recommends life coach Andrea Scher. Scher calls this "wonder-spotting" and says it can be a helpful way to crush anxiety. As you observe your surroundings, ask yourself: 'What's beautiful or interesting about this moment?'"

Knowledge-driven questions like these evoke what psychologist Jordan Litman calls "interest curiosity," which helps the brain focus on possibilities instead of problem-solving. And when the mind peers through the window of wonder, we can focus on the journey, instead of the destination, Litman's research points out. When we're grounded in the here and now, anxiety loses its ammunition because worries are almost always about the past or the future, says Scher.

During your wonder-spotting session, snap a photo of whatever catches your eye, the life coach suggests. For instance, you might spot a green, heart-shaped leaf or notice that the clouds look like marshmallows.

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Practice empathic curiosity.

When confidence-zapping fears like being fired or disliked arise, try empathic curiosity on for size. "Empathic curiosity is being curious about the thoughts and feelings of others, and it can help us challenge the sweeping generalizations anxiety brings," explains professor and empathy researcher, Jodi Halpern, M.D., Ph.D.

Instead of telling yourself that your friend is mad, use empathic curiosity and ask yourself: "I wonder what's going on for my friend today?" Anxiety can spin false narratives, but the truth is, "each person is a world we don't truly know," Halpern explains.

Empathic curiosity motivates you to wonder about the other person, which can move anxiety out of the limelight. Not only can it relieve distress, but it makes us more empathic toward others too, Halpern shares.

Become an emotional detective.

"Anxiety isn't always a reliable danger signal," Minden warns. That said, if you misread safety suggestions like indoor mask-wearing for doom and gloom or believe bad things are bound to happen, become an emotional detective.

To challenge these catastrophic beliefs, think like a detective and look for contrary evidence. "Ask yourself, 'what, specifically, do I think will happen? and what information do I have that this is true?'" Minden advises. You can also ask, "Is there another explanation?" "Practicing this exercise can help you move from reactive to curious, which makes it easier to trust true predictions, instead of anxious fictions," he shares.

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Practice curiosity-driven self-compassion.

"When I'm anxious, I use self-compassion to unlock curiosity," Scher says. For this exercise, sit down and place your hand on your heart. Then, without judgment, ask yourself: "What are you afraid of and why?" Scher recommends.

Perhaps you're afraid that your pandemic-induced grief won't end or that you'll never feel safe taking public transportation. Whatever it is, acknowledging your feelings can help dissolve worry, Scher explains. If your anxiety gremlins haunt you regularly, you might practice a little self-compassion every day.

After this anxiety-filled year, re-entry worries can be a downer. But combining compassion and curiosity can be healing medicine, Scher says.