Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #273) and blog, I talk to psychiatrist, professor and author Dr. Judson Brewer about on how anxiety drives our lives, what we can do to break the habit loops that keep us anxious, techniques to uproot anxiety at its source and manage our triggers, and more!
Starting in the 80s, research started coming out that anxiety could be driven in a habitual way. Dr. Jud has built on this research, showing people how to overcome anxiety in their own life through the way they change and deal with negative behaviors. He discusses this in detail in his amazing new book, Unwinding Anxiety, which stemmed out of his own experiences with anxiety in residency, and how he helps his patients with anxiety and breaking bad habits.
Dr. Jud’s process is based on 3 steps: learning how the mind works, learning about the reward system in the brain, and finding “bigger and better offers” to change the habit in question. Why are these steps important? We learn behaviors through trigger and result; this repeated process builds habits. When we learn how this works, we can start to learn how to use our own minds to our own advantage. We can map out all our habit loops that we have developed to cope, which is the first step to dealing with anxiety in our lives! As Dr. Jud points out, if we don’t know how our minds work, we can’t possible work with them.
Our brains are driven by how rewarding/valued a behavior is. We set how rewarding a behavior is and then “forget” it, which allows us to still behave in this way while learning other things. However, we can keep doing this automatically, even if the behavior is no longer rewarding to us now, and can end up stuck in toxic habit loops. This is why we have to stop and observe our own thoughts and behaviors. We can’t force ourselves to break habits unless we become aware of them and their value to us in the “now”. We need to ask ourselves questions like, “Is this habit still serving me? Is this habit serving my health? How useful is this habit to me really?”. This kind of curious awareness is key. Becoming aware of a habit we want to change helps us reduce the value or reward associated with that habit, which makes changing our behavior a lot easier!
Indeed, without self-regulated awareness, we cannot move forward in life. But awareness alone is not enough! It needs to be followed by directed and intentional action. When we see that a habit is not serving us or helping us get to where we want to be in life (based on our own reward hierarchy), then we can look for what Dr. Jud calls “a bigger, better offer” (BBO), or a new habit loop that feels better and actually helps us move forward and live our best life. This helps us realize that we often use bad habits as a coping mechanism to suppress feelings of anxiety; as a result, we can end up hiding our anxiety in a negative behavior. When we recognize this, we can start finding something that opens us up to growth in a curious, kind and non-judgmental way; we no longer let our anxiety shut us down to change and transformation.