Unwinding Anxiety | Judson Brewer

Summary of: Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind
By: Judson Brewer


Embark on an enlightening journey as we dive into the core of ‘Unwinding Anxiety’ by Judson Brewer. Grasp the way our survival brains control anxiety and worry, shaping them as powerful, addictive experiences. Learn about habit loops and their relation to anxiety, as well as how rewiring our brains can help us triumph over it. The book offers compelling insights into the science behind anxiety and provides practical tools like mindfulness, curiosity, and a compassionate mindset to tackle it head-on. This summary will enlighten you with life-changing strategies, unraveling the secrets to conquering anxiety and breaking free from its vicious cycles.

Our Ancestral Brain’s Response to COVID-19

Anxiety emerges from our survival brains and rewiring our ancestral brain is the solution to untangling anxiety.

Have you ever felt anxious to the point where you couldn’t stop worrying about what might happen next? This response is a natural product of our brains. Anxiety occurs when the prefrontal cortex doesn’t have enough information to predict what will happen, and our primitive survival brains take over. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our survival brains were activated as we frantically stockpiled toilet paper and necessities.

Humans have two parts to their brains, the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for planning and reasoning, and the autonomic nervous system that regulates our primitive survival responses. Anxiety is controlled by our survival brains, but it doesn’t actually have a useful evolutionary function. To untangle our anxiety, we need to rewire our survival brains.

Talking or reasoning our way out of it is useless as anxiety and stress shut down the rational part of our brains. As it turns out, anxiety emerges from our survival brains, and because of this, we need to learn to rewire our ancestral brains.

Our ancestral brain evolved at different times and evolved to protect us from danger, such as cave dwellers encountering a saber-toothed tiger activating their fight, flight, or freeze systems, giving them a better chance to survive. Anxiety keeps us up at night, cycling through hypothetical future scenarios. Rewiring our survival brains seems to be the key to untangling ourselves from anxiety.

Breaking the Cycle of Worry

Addiction to worry is a part of our daily lives and can harm our well-being. Like with other addictions, worrying provides temporary relief from difficult feelings and becomes a compulsive habit. Our brain learns that worrying provides temporary relief, and triggers it whenever we feel anxious. This cycle can seriously impact our mental health, but we can break the cycle and free ourselves from anxious thoughts.

Breaking Destructive Habit Loops

John’s drinking problem was a result of a habit loop fueled by anxiety. Breaking this cycle is essential to change behavior. Mapping habit loops, understanding triggers and behaviors, and changing thought patterns are all critical to break the cycle. Simply substituting or controlling behavior is not sufficient. Instead, recognizing and changing the fundamental habit loop will yield lasting change.

Untangling Anxiety with Mindfulness

Our brains function on autopilot for about 50% of the time, which can lead to destructive habits. Mindfulness, the act of becoming aware of our thoughts, can help interrupt this cycle. Scientific studies reveal that regular meditation and mindfulness training can lessen activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN), a network of brain regions that activate when we’re on autopilot and worry. Similarly, perseverative thinking, a major contributor to anxiety, activates the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which is responsible for addictive thoughts. By interrupting this cycle, we can reduce our anxiety levels. Mindfulness training can also help us change our smoking habits, as it reduces the activation of the PCC. With mindfulness, we can become conscious of our thought processes, and therefore interrupt anxious habit loops.

Rewiring Your Brain

Our habits are shaped by the rewards we associate with them. To change our habits, we need to change how we think about rewards. Our brains often store outdated ideas about how rewarding certain behaviors are. Mindfulness and self-reflection can help us discover the true rewards of our habits. When we notice ourselves performing a habitual behavior, we can ask ourselves what we’re actually getting out of it. By focusing on the actual experience, we may find that the behavior isn’t as rewarding as we thought. This will make breaking the habit easier as the reward loses its power.

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