The global pandemic has been a fearful time for many of us. Lockdown and working from home, fear of losing work, and caring for children or the eldery are all too common stressors these days. With so much to cope with and so many unknowns, it’s almost impossible to not feel anxious. Millions of Americans suffer from severe anxiety disorders. Dr. Judson Brewer, psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Brown University, has been studying the triggers and behaviors resulting in anxiety disorders and researches different techniques for treatment. Brewer says the path to less stress begins by reframing anxiety as a habit or addiction. Like other addictive behaviors, anxiety comes with familiar unhealthy patterns, such as stress-eating, procrastinating, and scrolling social media for hours.
KCRW’s Joanthan Bastian talks with Dr. Brewer about his book, “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind,” and asks how he deals with stress and anxiety in his own life.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: You describe your own stress and anxiety in your book, such as waking up with panic attacks in the middle of the night. What do you do when this stuff creeps up on you?
Dr. Judson Brewer: “Yes, full-blown panic attacks are like trying to surf a huge wave that we have no business surfing. So here I say, if somebody has a panic attack, just let it rip, let it go, and try not to do anything about it right at that moment. But afterwards, we can ask ourselves what happened. We can start to work with smaller moments of panic. What I had started training myself to do, and this was 10 years before I had my first big panic attack, was to simply note thoughts, emotions, and body sensations when they came up.
When I would wake up with a full-blown panic attack, I was in the habit of doing this noting practice. During the attack, I would notice the feeling like, ‘I’m going to die, I can’t breathe, my heart is racing.’ Afterwards, I would remind myself that those were the things that happened, and now it’s over. Since I was in residency training, I’d go through the checklist, and then I could let it go because I saw these things as thoughts, emotions, and body sensations.
The good news is that people don’t have to practice for 10 years, and this is why I wrote the book. People can actually start to utilize these tools and learn how to work with anxiety and even full-blown panic as they learn how to work with their minds.”
What are your thoughts on meditation? I’ve heard you developed a strong mediation practice over the last decade.
Brewer: “Yes, for my brain, it is the biggest, bestest offer I’ve ever had. Just learning how my own mind works helps me personally. It helps my interpersonal relationships, you can ask my wife. When I’m aware and noticing my bad habits, we have a much better relationship. It helps me professionally, I can help my patients more.
There’s this old saying, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something.’ In psychiatry we flip it and say, ‘Don’t just do something, sit there.’ So don’t try to jump in and fix your patient, but sit there and deeply listen so you can see what the real issue is before you offer up something. This has helped me tremendously and the biggest personal joy of my life is discovering, reawakening, or fostering my own curiosity. It is just delicious.”