More than a year of living through a pandemic has really increased anxiety for a lot of people. If we define anxiety as worry or unease about an imminent event with an uncertain outcome, it’s easy to see why. However, it really isn’t healthy to feel anxious all the time, even when outcomes are uncertain. Anxiety has been rising even before 2020, though.
Evolution gave us the ability to remember where food is, so we can find it, and where danger is, so we can avoid it. But the cerebral cortex, which is presumably more recently evolved, tries to overcome uncertainty by hunting for additional information. We could lean into uncertainty, especially where it is likely. However, sometimes we start to obsess on worst-case scenarios instead. Rather than helping you manage your anxiety, that could make it worse.
Our guest tells the story of developing irritable bowel syndrome in college. He couldn’t imagine that it was due to anxiety until after several other types of treatments failed to resolve the symptoms.
In addition, anxiety hides in our habits as well as in our bodies. Habits like overeating or alcohol misuse can be ways that we try to manage our anxiety. In fact, sometimes anxiety itself can become a habit. We may use it as a way to try to deal with anxiety, but unfortunately it isn’t any more effective than eating or drinking too much.
Do you like to hope for the best and plan for the worst? A lot of us do, but we need to make sure that we truly are planning and not just worrying. Going over something for the fifth or sixth time is not really helpful. Instead, it’s a sign of anxiety.
Habit loops can be hard to identify. But once you are able to spot how the trigger is driving your behavior, you can see the result. That identification is the first gear.
The second gear is to change the value of the reward that results from the behavior. One person who found that he was stress-eating realized that it wasn’t helping his anxiety. That helped him stopped. The question to ask: what am I getting from this?
The third gear is to find something that has a higher reward value. Dr. Brewer looks for a bigger better offer (BBO) for the brain. BBOs often involve either curiosity or kindness. In addition to helping overcome anxiety-driven habits, these tools can help us improve our relationships as well. Instead of self-judgment, imagine trying kindness towards yourself.
Dr. Brewer's research lab has created a couple of mindfulness apps that are very helpful in breaking anxiety-driven habit loops. One is designed to help with stress eating: Eat Right Now. The other is Unwinding Anxiety. Once you've listened to the show, you'll know exactly what that one is for.
Dr. Judson Brewer is an internationally renowned addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist. He is an associate professor in the School of Public Health, and Medical School at Brown University. His 2016 TED talk, "A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit," has been viewed over 16 million times. He has trained Olympic athletes and coaches, government ministers and business leaders. Dr. Brewer is the author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits, and his latest book is Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.
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