This week’s conversation is with Dr. Jud Brewer, a New York Times best-selling author, neuroscientist, addiction psychiatrist, and thought leader in the field of habit change. 

He is the Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, the executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare Inc., and a research affiliate at MIT.

Dr. Jud has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including treatments for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety. 

You may be familiar with him from his first appearance on Finding Mastery a few years ago – episode #066.

I wanted to have Jud back on to discuss his new book titled, “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.”

You can probably imagine where this conversation is headed – we discuss some of his new findings around working with anxiety, in any walk of life.

“Anxiousness is a feeling of nervousness, worry, or unease about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

In This Episode:

Where did the title for his book come from?

Unwinding Anxiety piece comes from what anxiety feels like. We feel wound up. And that wound-up quality of experience actually totally gets in the way for everything from helping our making our thinking and planning brain go offline to making us focus on things that are not help in our best interest where we get caught up in unhelpful habits like stress eating and procrastinating and even addictions because that driven quality of experience says, “Do something. Our survival brain is saying this is uncomfortable make it go away. So, the title came from that in terms of being wound up but also came from a lot of the research that my lab had been doing around the experience of what it’s like to let go. We’ve studied experienced meditators. I’ve been meditating myself for a long time. And the simplest way to explain that dichotomy of wound up versus letting go is kind of being caught up, being wound up, versus unwinding. And so, the unwinding piece is this journey that we all can take as we unwind whether it’s anxiety or any other habit or any addiction or even being attached to abuse, for example.

What’s his working definition of anxiety?

There’s actually a pretty good dictionary definition which is a feeling of nervousness, worry, or unease about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. And I particularly like that because it describes this feeling, the feeling of being wound up, the feeling of being nervous, this unease, this restless quality to experience. And it also points to how anxiety can be this feeling, and it can also trigger the mental behavior of worrying. So, we can be worried. We can feel worried, and we can also worry.

How does he think about constriction vs expansion when it comes to anxiety?

So, we use constriction and closed downness, and expansion and openness in a specifically undefined way. We just said, “We went across 14 different mental states, and we had people just describe how open or closed does this feel when you’re anxious, for example, when you’re feeling frustrated and versus things like curiosity and kindness.” Universally, people report that anxiety feels closed and constricted. Frustration feels closed and constricted, and that curiosity and kindness feel open and expanded. So, we can see this both phenomenologically when people not even defined people, they all relate the same way to these things, and we can also see this neurobiologically where we can link these things up to brain regional activation and importantly deactivation as people are letting go. So, more and more, I think, the framework is lining up pretty nicely.

The problem with smartphones

What the world has been doing also over the last, I’m going to say, since the invention of the smartphone, these weapons of mass distraction, we’ve been continually driving ourselves more and more into distraction and in making ways… I’ll phrase this differently, in finding ways to make ourselves comfortable through distraction. And so, our collective ability to tolerate distress has gone down. So, our distress tolerance is dropping and dropping and dropping. So, for example, somebody could be sitting at a stoplight 30 seconds of a red light, not a big deal, right? No. If you look around at night, everybody’s crotch is glowing blue because, suddenly, they can’t tolerate the distress of sitting at a red light for 30 seconds doing nothing.

How this becomes a major problem

There was a study in 2014 showing that people would rather shock themselves at a level that is uncomfortable than sit in a room and do nothing right. This is a study published in science. So, collectively, we’ve been moving as a society toward more and more and more and more comfort. And I think that also adds to it because our collective distress tolerance has decreased. So, where uncertainty, you can lean into uncertainty and say, “Oh, this is different. This is new.” We’re being trained, “Oh, this is different. This is uncomfortable,” because our survival brain is saying, “Hey, is there danger out there?” And instead of saying, “Hey, let’s go see if there’s danger,” we’re going, “Oh, this is uncomfortable. I got to run away from it as quickly as possible,” purely because we’ve trained ourselves that way.

Why do people fear others’ opinions so much (FOPO)?

One way to look back on this is what’s our brain trying to do? Some of this is probably driven by tribal psychology where we’ve got it. Basically, if you run around in a pack, you’re more likely to survive. And so, you’ve got to figure out pretty quickly is this a friendly package? Was this a not friendly pack? So, there’s this underlying piece here where our survival brain is in there saying, “Hey, friend or foe, I got to figure this out quickly.” So, that tribal psychology is still in there. And that programs to have us say, “Hey, I got to get people to like me basically.” And the other part of that programming is that says, “Okay. Let me find things.” So, what’s a simple way to do that? Well, you take views, for example. And it’s like, “Oh, what do you think about this? Oh, I agree with you.” Now, there’s suddenly a tribe that’s been developed based on that. And, in fact, this is so simple. There have been studies done that if you give people the same colored mug in a psychology experiment if I’m remembering this correctly, basically, the same color mugs, suddenly, they have a greater affinity toward a complete stranger just because they have this same colored mug or something. I think we all experience as you people drive down the street, and they’re like, “Oh, I drive a Mazda. That guy has a Mazda.” Suddenly, we’re a tribe. We’re a Mazda tribe because they have no idea who this person is. But they happen to drive the same brand of car that I drive. So, it is really baked in, and if we’re not aware of that, this can be manipulated very easily.

His three step process for combatting anxiety: First, awareness

The first step is that somebody’s got to map out how their mind works. So, this could apply to anxiety. This could apply to any habit, and it really goes back to the survival mechanism, trigger behavior results. That’s what drives any habit. So, for anxiety, the feeling of anxiety is the trigger. The mental behavior of worrying is the behavior. And the other behaviors could be procrastination. There could be a bunch of things that we could substitute in there. And then, the result is we get some reward out of it from our brain’s perspective. And then, that drives the loop. If we’re not aware of it, there’s no way we’re going to be able to work with it. When you bring awareness in, it helps people pay attention to the cause and effect relationship. So, when we’re worrying, what are we getting from the worry? So, I have people ask that simple question. What am I getting from this?” Is it solving the problem? No. Is it keeping my family member safe? No. So, whatever we think the worrying is doing besides just occupying our mind and making us more anxious, we’ve got to really dive into our experience and see the worrying’s actually just making us more anxious. It’s not helping us. That helps us become disenchanted with the behavior of worrying just like when we overeat and see that it’s not helpful we become disenchanted from that behavior or smoke a cigarette or procrastinate or whatever.

The antidotes: self-kindness

Our brains are based on they’re going to do behaviors that are more rewarding. We’ve got to give our brains something that’s more rewarding, and it’s not just staring at our phones because those avoidance things just create other problems. It’s about tapping into things that are intrinsically rewarding and that don’t become habituated. So, with those self-judgmental or the catastrophizing habit loops, the antidote there is self-kindness. What’s it feel like when we judge ourselves? Oh, I’m a terrible person versus what’s it like when we’re kind to ourselves which could be as simple as, “Oh, that’s my brain. Let me bring a little bit of self-compassion in here.” My survival brain’s just a little out of whack. It’s trying to help me survive, pat our brain on the head so to speak and say, “Okay. This direction is compared to this direction.” It feels much better to be kind to ourselves. That’s the bottom line.

The antidotes: curiosity

Curiosity is a direct antidote to anxiety. So, again, my lab’s done these studies. It’s going to sound like a no-brainer. But we’ve got to do the studies to show that it’s true. Anxiety feels contracted. Curiosity feels expanded. Which one feels better? Curiosity universally feels better than anxiety. So, in a moment that we’re anxious, we can actually get curious and dive in. So, I’m sure you know the phrase the only way out is through, right? We turn toward our anxiety, and instead of going, “Oh, no, I’m anxious. What’s wrong with me? Blah, blah, blah,” we go, “Oh, this is anxiety. What does it feel? Oh, is it tightness? Is that anxiety? Is it restlessness? Is it that? That oh is the curiosity that already feels better, and helps us see these are just physical sensations that come and go rather than something that’s going to be an ailment forever. And it helps us change our relationship to those physical sensations and, in the process, helps us step out of the anxiety loop.

What does he recommend to people looking for “relief” from an issue they’re having?

If we look to see how we’re actually approaching the problem, the relief problem, it actually helped just map it out what’s the trigger, what’s behavior, what’s the result. We can start to see clearly what we’re doing. And then, we can check in with ourselves that second step what am I getting from this. Is this actually solving the problem or is it just making it worse? Just that illumination helps us step back and say, “Oh, if it’s helping, great. Keep doing it.” If it’s not helping or if it’s driving even more problems, then, we can become disenchanted and find another way out. so much of this is solved simply from defining the problem clearly, seeing it, becoming disenchanted with the things that didn’t work. And that disenchantment especially we’re bringing curiosity in it opens up the space for us to move into growth mindset and say, “Oh, that’s not working. What might I do differently?” And we can start experimenting with what’s actually going to satisfy our needs. And when we get to needs satisfaction, we’re hitting Maslow’s hierarchy. We’re doing all the stuff that we need to do. And then, we can move to self-actualization and even self-transcendence.

 

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Director of Research at |

Judson Brewer, MD, PhD,  is a thought leader in the field of habit change and the “science of self-mastery”, having combined nearly 20 years of experience with mindfulness training with his scientific research therein. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, spoken at international conferences, trained US Olympic coaches, and his work has been featured on 60 Minutes, TED, TEDMED, TEDx, Time magazine (top 100 new health discoveries of 2013), Forbes, BBC, NPR, Businessweek and others.

 

One comment

  • I have a question about your resistance to reductionism that you mention in this episode. Wondering where it comes from.At a human level, I get not wanting to over-simplify someone's experience and make their entire story about one thing. But at a practical level, don't people need something simple enough that they can quickly understand it and take action? My sense is that when we avoid simplicity, we often end up just doing a lot a talking and don't give people the practical solutions they need. Also, with things like attention and mindfulness, I think you can make a good case that the most helpful story actually *is* the reductionist version. Example: With the negative thoughts that trigger anxiety, everyone has their own topics that trigger them. But the *mechanism* of the trigger is the same (the thoughts arise, we react to them). Becoming aware of that mechanism is incredibly helpful for everyone, regardless of the thoughts themselves. And gives people instant power to break the cycle. So, the trigger mechanism may not be the whole story of their issue, but it is the story that gives them the most immediate power and control over it. So, why not embrace that? Why view a simple explanation as being inherently limited?Now, full disclosure, I am a reductionist at heart. :-) My whole drive as a writer is to find the simplest possible explanation for things so that people can immediately get it and take action, especially with matters of self-improvement. And in my experience, there's a direct correlation between simplicity and effectiveness. To the extent material is not simple and actionable, people won't do anything with it. So, this is just my take on this. But I'm also sure you feel the way you do for good reason. Can you help me understand your resistance to it? Have you seen a reductionist approach create a problem for someone in boosting their performance, for example? I would really appreciate hearing more about your views on this.  Thanks!