Worrying can give us the illusion of control or taking useful action, making it normal to mistake worrying for a helpful means of soothing our anxiety. This can lead us to repeat this behavior so much that it becomes a habit. So, when anxiety becomes a habit, how do we break free?
In this episode, we hear from best-selling author, researcher and psychiatrist Dr. Jud Brewer. He has developed a clinically-proven, step-by-step process to help us break free from the cycle of worry and fear that feeds back into anxiety. Mindfulness is a core part of this process that involves working with the brain’s reward system.
Listen and learn how understanding how your mind works can help you live with greater calm and ease.
This talk is a brief excerpt from Dr. Jud Brewer’s guest teacher presentation to those enrolled in our Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training Program. Learn more about this unique, online, self-paced certification program at mindfulnessexercises.com/certify/
What You’ll Learn in This Episode:
Discerning between fear, anxiety, and panic
Anxiety is often described as feelings of nervousness, worry or unease about an uncertain outcome. As anxiety ramps up, the part of our brain that offers cognitive control goes completely offline, leading to panic. Anxiety and panic are different from fear, the latter being an adaptive response that helps us survive. Fear in the absence of imminent danger is simply anxiety.
“If we’re being chased by the proverbial saber-toothed tiger and we get cornered, our job is to contract down into the tightest little ball that we can so we can protect our vital organs. So fear actually helps us survive. [...] I think of anxiety in a nutshell as fear of the future. So there is not something that is imminently dangerous right now, but we still feel that feeling.”
Why anxiety is similar to other habitual behaviors
Research from the 1980’s describes how the worry-thinking that arises from anxiety sometimes helps us feel as though we’re in control, as if we’re doing something useful. But worrying doesn’t solve our problems, and so it can trigger a negative feedback loop that creates even more anxiety. Just knowing this can help us break free from the habit of worrying, along with other unhelpful behaviors.
“Something I never learned in medical school or residency, was that anxiety can be driven like any other habit. And this was something that was so important for me to learn. I felt like this was the missing piece in terms of how to actually help people with anxiety.”
The link between reward-based learning and dependent origination
Reward-based learning is the process by which a rewarding behavior gets repeated. This trigger-behavior-result process is similar to the thousand-year-old Buddhist theory of dependent origination. Everything that arises in our awareness gets evaluated with a feeling tone (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), which then triggers attachment or aversion. In part, contemplating the futility of chasing what’s pleasant or pushing away what is not led to the Buddha’s awakening.
“Whether it’s described as reward-based learning in modern day, or as operant conditioning in ancient history in the Pali Canon, this is basically the same element, this is how all habits are formed, including how we start to identify with our experience.”
The neuroscience behind the default mode network
The default mode network (DFM) is the neurological network we default to when we’re not being very mindful. This area of the brain is responsible for much of our self-referential thinking. The more we worry, the more the DFM is activated. Meditation and mindfulness minimize activity in the DFM, a topic that was also explored in detail by Dr. Rick Hanson, a past guest on the Mindfulness Exercises podcast.
“If you think back to the Buddhist around that loop of ‘selfing,’ you can think of this as the ‘selfing network’ because the more we think and ponder upon things the more this becomes who we are. And so the more identified we become with these things. Interestingly, the more somebody worries, the more they activate the default mode network.”
Why habit change starts with awareness of how the mind works
Mapping out the process of habit formation helps us become more mindful of how our mind contributes to perpetuating those habits. The first step toward the cessation of a habit loop is to become aware of when we’re caught up in one and what the trigger was. Step two entails exploring the results of our behavior. The final step is where mindfulness can be of great use. We can replace habitual behavior with kind curiosity, asking, ‘Am I really getting a reward from this?’
“When I’m working with meditation students this is a really good framework to help them understand their minds. And the way I think about this is, if they don’t know how their mind works, they can’t possibly work with it. If they start to understand it, they can start to map out their habitual processes in their mind. They can start to see how their mind has unhelpfully tried to help them work with dukha, with things that are unpleasant, and how they can then reel that back in and find more skillful ways to work with their experience.”
The benefit of disenchantment
The only way to change a behavior is to bring awareness to how rewarding it actually is. When we bring awareness to anxiety and worry-thinking, we realize it only causes us greater suffering. This is similar to the Buddha’s teachings on exploring gratification to its end. When we contemplate the perceived reward more mindfully, we recognize that it’s not actually rewarding at all. The resulting disenchantment invites us to let go of our habitual grasping.
“Now the way that we can apply this to anxiety, is that we can pay attention when we worry, and we can ask ourselves, what am I getting from worrying? Is it helping me be in control? Is it solving a problem? Is it making me feel better? What am I actually feeling when I’m worrying? How do I feel? That helps us see very very clearly just how rewarding worry is, or isn’t.”
Replacing anxiety with kind curiosity
Once we become disenchanted with this old, habitual behavior, the question becomes, ‘What do we replace it with?’ We can transform the habit of worry-thinking by replacing it with mindfulness, or kind, present-moment curiosity. Curiosity is infinitely more rewarding than anxiety, or any other behavior we may want to change. We can practice looking at what we’re feeling, versus why we are feeling it.
“When we start to see how unrewarding things like worrying are, we start to become disenchanted. This brings in the space. It opens up the space for what I call the BBO, the bigger, better offer, or rewards that are more rewarding. [...] What can we bring in instead? [...] What if we substitute in curiosity for worry, which one feels better? If we’re anxious, we can worry about why am I anxious, or we can get curious.”
About Dr. Jud Brewer:
Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, known as “Dr. Jud” to most, is a New York Times best-selling author and thought leader in the field of habit change. His teachings blend over 20 years of mindfulness training experience with his career in scientific research.
As a psychiatrist and internationally known expert in mindfulness training for treating addictions, Dr. Jud has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments for anxiety, emotional eating, and smoking.
He 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 the New York Times best-seller, Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.
Dr. Jud is the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, where he also serves as an associate professor in Behavioral and Social Sciences at the Brown University’s School of Public Health and Psychiatry at the School of Medicine.