Unwinding Anxiety: Three Gears to Deconstruct Anxious Habits

Dr. Judson Brewer’s book “Unwinding Anxiety” is a refreshing take on anxiety and panic disorder. It’s a workbook on how to deconstruct negative habits and thought patterns associated with anxiety.

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“Relax. Calm down.” Three words no one in the throws of an anxiety attack, or panic attack (unprovoked anxiety) wants to hear. If you suffer from anxiety/panic disorder, like me, you can relate. Because the sensations associated with these attacks have less to do with what we think and more to do with the physical symptoms that accompany our thoughts. We perceive a threat to be so real that our bodies react. Sure, mindfulness and breathwork do alleviate the physiological responses but the core of anxiety is actually the habit(s) that form around it.

Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind by Dr. Judson Brewer (Dr. Jud for short) is a workbook on how to deconstruct negative habits and thought patterns associated with anxiety. It’s not a leisurely read or thought-provoking self-help book, and that’s a good thing. I say this because, unlike self-help books that merely invite the reader to pause and reflect, Dr. Jud encourages calls to action: write thoughts down, chart habits, see the pattern, create a less anxious life through new habits. 

“Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles, it takes away today’s peace.” – Randy Armstrong

Dr. Jud dives into the science of how anxiety has developed as an evolutionary defense mechanism of fight, flight, or freeze— from the prefrontal cortex (problem solving) to the orbitofrontal cortex (reward center). Through that understanding it’s easier to breakdown anxious habits and redesign them to our benefit. 

He breaks down these actions into three gears:

First Gear

Map out anxiety habit loops through a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. This allows us to clearly see how anxiety is formed, our physical response to it, and the reward system we’ve developed to calm ourselves down. First gear is the first step to break the autopilot response.

Second Gear

Tap into the brain’s reward system that works to calm anxiety. Now that we’ve identified the pattern(s), it’s crucial to ask the question, does that habit (triggered by anxiety) still serve me? In most cases, the answer to the question is ‘no,’ and therefore a moment of clarity. It’s time to change the habit.

Third Gear

Rewire that response to form new, healthier habits. What habit is the bigger, better option? Once we’re able to see a new habit as more rewarding than the old one we’re more inclined to lean into it, and repeat it. 

“Paying attention is really important if you want to change a habit,”— Dr. Jud

It’s refreshing to read a book that breaks down anxiety into habits rather than strictly a mental state. Even meditation won’t work until it becomes a habit, but before it becomes a habit it needs to be practiced consistently and with intent. As explained in The Untethered Soul, mindfulness, acute attention to our mind-body experience, can change our relationships to thoughts. In line with that notion, in Third Gear Dr. Jud invites us to become inwardly curious about anxiety, about the thoughts and our physiological response to them (heart palpitations, shortness of breath, etc).

As someone who openly suffers from panic disorder, I found this part of the workbook to be the most interesting: when faced with panic, or anxiety, begin to “hmm” (not to be confused with Om). This sound, associated with curiosity, connects the thinking mind to the feeling body. With each “hmm” the mind is able to locate where the negative sensations in the body are and can begin to pinpoint the start of how to unwind the sensations. This is a way to translate anxiety, or panic, for what it could truly be— stress, tension, indigestion, or any other bodily response. He even offers an acronym to aid this process: RAIN: Recognize/relax into it. Accept/allow it to be there. Investigate bodily sensations thoughts emotions. Note what is happening moment to moment.

It’s tempting to skip to Third Gear immediately (who doesn’t want fast answers and results?), but there’s a reason it’s placed last. Just like “relax” or “calm down,” before you can truly unwind anxiety you first have to understand where it’s coming from. Simply stating the answer won’t fix the problem, you first have to do the work.

Unwinding Anxiety is not going to calm you down or rid you of anxiety. What it will do, as I’ve started to learn firsthand, is give you the tools to build new habits that will, over time, pave the way for greater happiness. 

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