“From helping us learn to survive in the world to bringing the joy of discovery and wonder, curiosity really is a superpower.” Dr Judson Brewer
We’re living in a complex and uncertain world. While this brings incredible opportunities, it also increases anxiety and depression worldwide.
In fact, according to a scientific brief recently released by the World Health Organization, anxiety and depression have increased by 25% since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you’re going through anxiety, is there anything you can do about it? According to two well-known authors, there are some powerful strategies you can deploy.
Unwinding Anxiety by Dr. Judson Brewer
Dr. Judson Brewer, or Dr. Jud as he is known, is an internationally recognized addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Brown’s University Medical School, USA. He believes anxiety is an ingrained habit.
According to Dr Jud, the solution to breaking ingrained, unhealthy habits is in mindfulness and what he calls the superpower “curiosity”.
When we are curious, we are more open and not closed and rigid. In fact, the opposite of curiosity is fear. When we are in a state of fear our adrenaline kicks in and we’re in fight or flight mode.
When we’re curious, we‘re more open to possibilities and can think more clearly.
This shift in mindset allows us to approach life with interest and excitement rather than with fear and panic.
To shift your mindset from fear to curiosity we need to be aware of our habit loops, why we do what we do. Habits are deeply ingrained in our brains.
Dr Jud has developed a three-step, evidence-based process to breaking entrenched habits whether they are addictions or obsessive worrying and anxiety.
Step 1: Noticing your behaviour
The first step is learning and understanding how our brain works. Dr Jud calls it mapping our mind. There are three elements to a habit. They are the trigger, behaviour and the result or reward we get from the habit.
We need to know what our habit loops are in terms of these three elements.
What kinds of situations trigger anxiety or other difficult feelings? Write down as many habit loops as you can think of. It will help you get a greater understanding of your motivations and triggers.
Step 2: Investigating why you’re engaging in the behaviour
The second step is in understanding a well-known neuroscientific fact that our behaviour changes if we change the reward value of that behaviour.
The aim here is to have a good hard look from all our senses at the reward or results we are getting from the behaviour. To change our habits, we will also have to change how we think about them.
Addiction and obsessive thought patterns are controlled by our instinctive survival brains (amygdala) and not our rational and discerning brains (pre-frontal cortex).
When we’re anxious and stressed our discerning brain shuts down and we tend to act on autopilot. We need to feel into the results or reward we are getting from being anxious.
By using mindfulness techniques, we can observe the autopilot behaviour we are engaging in. What does it feel like in my body? What am I getting from this? What is the habit loop? In paying attention to all your senses, your brain can become disenchanted with the automatic behaviour.
Step 3: Substituting with a bigger, better option
The third step is what Dr Jud calls the superpower ” Curiosity”. Bringing mindfulness awareness and curiosity to what is happening, unhooks us from being on autopilot.
When we are curious and pay attention to what it feels like in our body, we are more open, not as consumed by autopilot, mindless behaviour, and the emotional intensity we are feeling can abate. We can then observe what the real rewards are in the present moment and not react automatically.
As well as being present and curious, we also need to be kind to ourselves. This is not the time for the inner critic to take charge. We need to be our own best friend and not judge ourselves. Being self-critical while in these habit loops only exacerbates the cycle.
Changing ingrained habits is hard and takes courage. Dr Jud states that your behaviour can shift after as few as 10-15 times of following these three steps and changing the reward value of what you’re doing.
This three-step solution by Dr Jud, can be highly effective in taming our anxiety. I highly recommend this book for anyone dealing with anxiety.
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson is a New York Times best-selling author, thought leader, podcaster and climate advisor.
Sarah uses her journalistic skills looking at the trends in treating anxiety and researches the topic comprehensively, being a fellow sufferer herself. She interviews mental health experts as well as other sufferers, philosophers and the Dalai Lama is also featured in the book.
What I really like about this book is that Sarah questions the accepted definitions of anxiety beyond the medical model and reframes how we look at it. Rather than seeing anxiety as being a burden, Sarah says having this condition is a way for us to live a richer, more fulfilling life and thrive.
Sarah’s main message is that by investigating your anxiety, accepting it, and discovering what you can learn from it about the wonder of life, is something any of us with anxiety can do.
“There’s no point wishing I didn’t have anxiety; it is what it is,” Sarah says.
“But I also wouldn’t give it up. I wouldn’t give back the richness, the depth, the emotional spectrum I’ve experienced.
“Anxiety is the thing that takes you down, this anxiety about not knowing what life is about takes you down. But it’s also the thing that ultimately takes you to where the answer lies.” (from an article on ABC news “Making the beast beautiful: What if your anxiety could be useful.”)
There is no doubt anxiety can be a roller coaster ride. At the end of the day, resisting our anxiety will only exacerbate it. As famous psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “What you resist, persists.”
By following Dr Jud’s neuroscience backed three-step solution and, as Sarah Wilson beautifully puts, not only accepting our anxiety but thriving with it, can make all the difference to the way we deal with anxiety.
It is a case of continuing to learn, grow and take action. The strategies I have outlined above can be transformative if you follow them.
They are definitely making a difference to me!
If you want to learn more about the power of cultivating new habits and breaking ingrained habits holding you back, My Life Journal course, a 5-week online course, teaching you skills in coaching yourself to a more fulfilling life, has some excellent tools and techniques to help you change habits.
The Life Journal course will support you in developing a compelling vision for your life and set inspiring but achievable goals.
You will develop a greater understanding of yourself, clarify the values that guide you through life and build resilience skills we all need to thrive in this chaotic world.
You will truly enhance your overall quality of life.