Harnessing Anxiety: We Can Learn So Much From an Arts Education

By Robert Wagner, director of visual and performing arts

I recently attended the National Association of Independent Schools’ annual conference and enjoyed hearing keynote speaker Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, Ph.D., advocate for experiencing anxiety rather than avoiding it. Dr. Dennis-Tiwary has gained notoriety for her book, Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You (Even Though it Feels Bad). As a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist, she draws on research and personal experiences to make a case for the power of anxiety.

Dr. Dennis-Tiwary defines anxiety as nervous apprehension about the uncertain future
. It is a highly evolved emotion that is not automatically a disorder. As an emotion, it differs from fear because fear is about the present moment. Fear is the snake in front of you right now; anxiety is thinking about the snake that might appear on the trail as you go hiking tomorrow. Anxiety is our brain time-traveling to the future and trying to process the potential positive or negative outcomes of something we care about.

Dr. Dennis-Tiwary challenges us to sit with our anxiety to see what our brain is trying to tell us. Anxiety is a compass pointing us toward future action or necessary preparation

As I sat listening to the spectacular lecture, I couldn’t help but think about my first acting teacher and director, Loretta Wehbe, who ran the Performing Arts Youth Theatre in Springfield, Pennsylvania, for 27 years. Anytime a student expressed apprehension about going on stage, Loretta would stop everything and recite the same monologue. “Nerves are a kind of energy,” she would say. “They mean you care. So don’t let them stop you, use the energy to give an even better performance!” 

It turns out Loretta’s pep talks can be backed by science. We only experience anxiety if we care. This complex feeling helps us stay focused on what matters to us in the future. And while it might be uncomfortable, our racing heart allows increased oxygen flow to our brain to enhance concentration and performance.

I left the keynote saying the same thing to anyone that would stop to listen, “This talk is scientific proof of the power of arts in education.”

When preparing for a performance or a public exhibition of an artwork, it is natural to feel anxious. In fact, I always tell young actors I get nervous! The visual and performing arts faculty at LJCDS provide students with a supportive environment to sit with their anxiety, learn how to use it and work through it.
Are you nervous because of one particular note in a song? It’s your brain telling you to rehearse it some more. Concerned that your artist statement won’t be fully understood? It’s time to ask a trusted friend for feedback. We have so much we can learn from these anxious feelings.

Families, if you ever find that your young learner is opting out of the arts because they are anxious to perform or have their work on display, I want you to encourage them to lean in and power through. Remember, this nervous apprehension is good. It means you care.

Once a Torrey, Always a Torrey
Building Toolboxes for Success in a Diverse World

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