Ep 159: Breaking Down Anxiety

Dr. Judson Brewer, author of Unwinding Anxiety, explains how anxiety is in fact a habit--one we can break. He shares insight from his years of research to debunk the myths surrounding modern views on anxiety and the truth about stopping the cycle.

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Full show notes

Anxiety is a pretty common feeling–you likely know how it feels to have your heart suddenly race in your chest, your palms go sweaty and your words turn to gibberish before a big presentation or confrontation. Having these anxious feelings is bad enough when it’s an isolated incident, but many of us–and our kids–might be feeling anxiety every day! This could be caused by anything, from eating to driving to social situations! For kids handling school, sports, clubs, college apps and friendship drama, anxiety may be a frequent presence keeping them from living their best life.

It seems like this anxiety is simply an unavoidable, biological force, but our guest this week is encouraging us to think about anxious behaviors a little differently. Instead of viewing them as something we have little control over, he’s telling us how anxiety may actually just be a force of habit, and therefore something we can change! Anxious responses follow the same patterns as habits, are often caused by similar triggers, and, as we’re discussing this week, can be treated in similar ways.

If you’re looking to heal you or your teen’s anxious patterns, this is the episode for you! Our guest is Judson Brewer, author of Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind. Judson is not only an internationally renowned psychiatrist and neuroscientist, but also the director of research and innovation at Brown’s mindfulness center. His 2016 Ted Talk, tilted “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit, has over 16 million views on youtube!

In our interview, we’re diving into how anxious tendencies act just like habits–with triggers, behavior and rewards. Plus, we’re getting into how you can understand and reflect on your own behaviors, if you just have the courage to be curious.

How Anxiety Becomes Habitual

Our typical approach to anxiety requires us to see it as an unmoving, impenetrable force...when in reality, it’s a habit we can work on amending, says Judson. To understand how, Judson and I are getting to the bottom of how habits form! In our interview, Judson outlines the basic cycle of developing a habit.

It begins with a trigger, resulting in a behavior that yields a reward. Once our brain determines how it can access this reward, our minds will crave it again, and again, resulting in the formation of a habit!

When we get anxious, our body starts the physiological and mental process of worrying, which keeps us occupied. This response aids the anxious feeling, and acts as a reward, says Judson. When we find ourselves triggered by, say, a thunderstorm or a challenging math test, we allow our minds to run rampant with worry, tap our fingers nervously, and find ourselves unable to focus. The more we lean into that worried response, the more it becomes a habit, says Judson. Suddenly, unable to break the pattern, we find our anxiety has come to run our lives!

Not to mention that nowadays, there are more reasons than ever for parents to be anxious. Technology makes it so that we can call teens any time to make sure they’re safe...but also means that they can run loose on the internet, getting into dangerous situations or posting incriminating stuff on social media. For teens growing up in a media saturated world, anxiety-inducing news and images are everywhere. No wonder it’s so easy for teens and parents to fall into patterns of anxious behavior.

So we’ve figured out that our anxiety might be habitual….but how can we take steps to help ourselves or our teen out of an anxious cycle?

Developing Better Behaviors

If you want to revolutionize your life and ditch your anxiety (or other bad habits), Judson encourages taking note of your own behavior, and analyzing your findings!. Simply becoming aware of what triggers you and how you tend to respond can lead to healthier habits. If you can really hone in on the reward at hand–in this case, anxiety relief– you may find that there are better, healthier approaches than just worrying like crazy!

Judson also points to a trio of personality classifications that may help you understand your anxiety response–fight, flight, or freeze. While some people dive head in when confronted with a stressful issue, others are more avoidant, while others still find themselves essentially paralyzed with the inability to make a choice, leaving them frozen. Figuring out which category you or your teen falls under can help you to understand and amend your own coping mechanisms.

Interestingly, Judson insists that you can’t really break a habit out of sheer willpower. In his work with patients who are struggling with addiction, he’s found that self reflection is much more effective!

For example, for those who are addicted to cigarettes, Judson encourages them to really pay attention to their smoking experience. Most of the time, clients report back saying they realized how bad cigarettes taste and smell, how they just return to feeling stressed a few minutes after smoking. This leads them to quit, when they realize the “reward” of smoking just isn’t worth it.

Whether it’s cigarettes, vapes, or junk food, we may notice that our teens have fallen into some unfortunate habits. In the episode, Judson and I talk about how you can encourage teens to change by prompting them to be curious and giving them the steps to process their anxiety.

Helping Teens with Bad Habits

It’s not always easy to get teens to think critically about their own behavior, but if we can harness their natural curiosity, we might be able to get them to change their perspective and work on unhealthy habits. Judson explains how teens can often be reactive and criticize their own behavior pretty harshly, but if we encourage them to be thoughtful instead, they may adopt a growth mindset. Judson explains this further in our interview.

In addition, Judson lays out a few steps for a teen who’s struggling with a bad habit, addiction, or serious anxiety. He shares an acronym with us that he uses to help patients: RAIN. The R stands for recognizing and relaxing and the A stands for allow. This means when a wave of anxiety or a craving for cigarettes comes over your teen, panicking or quickly distracting themselves won’t help–they need to recognize the feeling and sit with it, says Judson.

The ‘I’ stands for investigate, which means searching for the trigger or cause of the feeling. If teens can identify what’s causing the problem, they can work on removing that person, place or thing from their daily life! Finally, the N stands for note, which means studying how they feel, examining the “reward” created by the unhealthy habit. As Judson and I repeat throughout the interview, it’s so important to reflect on our behavior if we want what’s best for ourselves and our teens.

In the Episode...

Judson’s perspective on anxiety is refreshing and thought provoking! It was a pleasure to talk to him about how we can all develop healthier habits. On top of the topics discussed above, we cover:
  • Why medication for anxiety is often ineffective
  • How evolution plays a role in our habit development
  • Why anxiety doesn’t actually make us better public speakers
  • How we can work on bad habits retroactively
If you want to find more of Judson’s work you can find him at Drjud.com, where you can sign up for his mailing list or find lots of other great resources. Thanks for listening and don’t forget to share and subscribe!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Jud Brewer MD PhD
Jud Brewer MD PhD
Neuroscientist, Addiction Psychiatrist & Author of Unwinding Anxiety🔸Assoc. Prof. @BrownUniversity🔸Chief Medical Officer @SharecareInc🔸Founder: MindSciences
Ep 159: Breaking Down Anxiety
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