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The Power of Naomi Osaka

A real-life Captain Marvel to help others battle anxiety.

One of our biggest collective mental health challenges today is anxiety, which is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Before the pandemic, it was estimated that 18% of Americans, or about 40 million people, suffered from clinical levels of anxiety, and by all accounts that percentage has increased significantly. Even more telling is that an estimated 90% of the population now report feeling some level of anxiety in their everyday lives.

Regardless of whether you’re diagnosed with a clinical disorder or simply feeling more anxious, with a whole new era of work-life and school-life starting in the fall, it seems that we could all use a real-life Captain Marvel to help us battle the fast approaching zombie apocalypse of anxiety that is fall 2021.

Who will help us?

As a neuroscientist who studies brain plasticity and mental health, I can’t help but notice the emergence of just such a real-life superhero who embodies both the powerful positive actions we can take to reduce anxiety in our lives, but also the profound gifts that can emerge from embracing anxiety.

Her name is Naomi Osaka.

Why is she our Captain Marvel for anxiety? Just last month at the French Open Osaka took the bold step of withdrawing from the tournament rather than be pressured to attend the mandatory press conferences. Osaka is open about the fact that she suffers from social anxiety and that the press conferences associated with these big tournaments tax her overall mental health. While I’m sure that this was a very difficult decision, in the end, it was also a total badass move to not only have the courage to withdraw to protect her own mental health but also send a clear message (via Instagram no less) encouraging tennis officials to take notice and consider the mental health of all players. Another badass, Simone Biles, was clearly listening to this advice, recently withdrawing from the all-around gymnastics competition at the Olympics to protect and focus on her own mental health.

Taking this kind of positive action to decrease high levels of persistent anxiety is supported by neuroscience. Moments of uncontrollable stress (i.e. anxiety) activate an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain’s temporal lobe called the amygdala. At the same time the amygdala fires up, high levels of two neurotransmitters — noradrenaline and dopamine — act to inhibit the functions of the prefrontal cortex, the brain area that helps us evaluate situations and make thoughtful decisions. The double whammy of amygdala activation and prefrontal inhibition leaves us feeling fearful, frozen, and helpless to make a move. Too many such episodes can lead to more serious, clinical levels of anxiety.

While it’s critical to take action to decrease persistently high levels of anxiety in our lives, the real surprise for most is the idea that aspects of our anxiety can also be good for us. Indeed, when we learn to embrace the uncomfortable, painful, or prickly feelings associated with anxiety, we generate valuable knowledge that can teach us about ourselves and offer a path to a more fulfilling and less stressful life.

How does that work, you may ask? Let me return again to our Captain Marvel, Naomi Osaka. During the 2019 US Open, Osaka, who was the top seed, had just defeated the 15-year-old teen phenom Coco Gauff. Gauff played well but was crying after the match. In a video clip of the interaction**, Osaka approached the crying Gauff and suggested that they should do the post-match interview together. At first, Gauff said no, she wouldn’t be able to get through the interview without crying. But Osaka ultimately convinced Gauff to do the interview together. And in her own quiet way — that happened to be filmed for a TV audience of millions — Osaka put on her Captain Marvel cape and helped Gauff get through the trial-by-fire that is the post-match interview.

Why? Because Osaka recognized the fear that Gauff was experiencing and decided to help out her young colleague. And that is one of the most powerful gifts of anxiety: anxiety opened the door to deep empathy and compassion.

You don’t have to be a world-class tennis player to take advantage of this powerful gift of anxiety. We can all use the deep knowledge and understanding of our own particular form of anxiety (e.g., money fears, fear of public speaking or fear of uncertainty) to help others just as Osaka helped Gauff. The best part is that exercising your anxiety-based empathy/compassion is a powerful anti-anxiety remedy on its own. The more you connect with others, the more you buffer the negative aspects of anxiety.

In the end, there is no magic bullet to completely remove anxiety from our lives. But we can learn to manage our anxiety by taking powerful positive actions to honor those feelings of discomfort and even turn them into a powerful force for good.

** See episode one of the recent Netflix series, Naomi Osaka.