I tend to carry anxiety in my body. This has gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years. I have experienced jaw clenching, stomach and esophagus problems, and severe muscle tension in every conceivable muscle in my body. Some of these issues were mere annoyances, while some were truly debilitating. It’s awful to wake up in the morning unable to walk, chew your cereal, or use the computer, depending on which muscle was clenched in a sleeping anxiety death grip the night before. Anxiety can ruin your life as you know it—I’ve been there. And it’s a danger always lurking around me, threatening to bring me down again.
See a medical professional about this, and they are likely to prescribe medication or psychotherapy. These can work; but they have drawbacks and limitations. I was fascinated to read about another solution in the book Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD. Brewer has several feet in several worlds: he is both a doctor (psychiatrist) and a research neuroscientist, and on top of this he is a meditation and mindfulness expert. His research focuses on breaking bad habits . . . and he announces that anxiety is a habit.
Anxiety is a habit? That’s stunning and fortuitous news. If anxiety is a habit, well, habits can be broken. And Brewer walks us through exactly how.
“Something magical happens when you rub your brain’s proverbial little nose in whatever your proverbial little habit might be: you start to become disenchanted with the behavior.”
—Judson Brewer, Unwinding Anxiety
In other words, using mindfulness techniques to notice what’s happening at a bodily level can make your brain less inclined to engage in a damaging behavior—like runaway anxiety.
In the book, Brewer guides the reader through his research-based, three-step process for how to break the anxiety habit:
- Figure out what your habitual patterns of anxiety are.
- While you are engaged in one of your habitual patterns, notice how you feel in your body.
- In that moment, get curious about what is going on.
These steps are powerful because instead of relying on willpower (which, as Brewer points out, is not very effective), they tap into the brain’s basic functionality. Instead of trying to force yourself to be less anxious, following these steps allows you to investigate what’s really going on, and then transform your anxiety into something else entirely.
After all, you can hardly be anxious at the same time as being curious. These are fundamentally different mind states. The first is essentially fear, while the second is essentially wonder.
If you’re wondering what on earth I’m talking about, read the book. Brewer explains all of this much better than I am able to in this short blog post.
Have you felt anxious lately?
Have you felt curious?