in: Character, Habits, Podcast

Podcast #782: Anxiety Is a Habit — Here’s How to Break It

Note: This is a rebroadcast.

You may think of anxiety as a reaction, a feeling, or a disorder. My guest today says that perhaps the best way to think about anxiety, especially if you want to treat it effectively, is as a habit.

His name is Dr. Judson Brewer, and he’s a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, and the author of Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind. Dr. Jud and I begin our conversation with what anxiety is, and how it gets connected into a habit loop that can lead to other maladaptive behaviors like drinking, overeating, and worrying. Dr. Jud then explains how to hack the anxiety habit loop by mapping it out, disenchanting your anxiety-driven behaviors, and giving your brain “a bigger, better offer” by getting curious about your anxiety. We also talk about why asking why you’re anxious is not part of this process, and end our conversation with how this habit-based approach to behavior change can also work for things like depression and anger.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, you may think of anxiety as a reaction, a feeling or a disorder. My guest today says that perhaps the best way to think about anxiety, especially if you wanna treat it effectively, is as a habit. His name is Dr. Judson Brewer. He’s a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist, and the author of Unwinding Anxiety, new science shows how to break the cycles of worry and fear to heal your mind. Dr. Jud and I begin our conversation with what anxiety is and how it gets connected into a habit loop that can lead to other maladaptive behaviors like drinking, overeating, and worrying. Dr. Jud then explains how to hack the anxiety habit loop by mapping it out, disenchanting your anxiety-driven behaviors, and giving your brain a bigger, better offer by getting curious about your anxiety. We also talk about why asking why you’re anxious is not part of this process, and end our conversation with how this habit-based approach to behavior change, can also work for things like depression and anger. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

Judson Brewer, welcome to the show.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a psychiatrist that specializes in anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, and you got a new book out Unwinding Anxiety. How did you end up specializing in anxiety and addiction disorders, as a psychiatrist?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Well, my own anxiety. [laughter] It was kind of serendipitous. So, I used to get panic attacks during… When I was in residency, and then I actually got anxiety trying to help my own patients with anxiety. And I say that because with the best medications out there, it takes about… For every five patients, only one of them shows a significant reduction in symptoms. There’s this term called “Number needed to treat,” which is basically what that means. And so I’m placing the… I’m playing the medication lottery, I don’t know which of the next five patients I’m gonna treat is gonna benefit, and also I don’t know what to do with the other four. So serendipitously, I was doing a lot of research. I’ve just really interested in addictions, it’s a tough field to work in, and I like challenges. So I’ve been doing a lot of research with addictions, and habit change, and we’ve gotten some good results with… We developed a program for smoking cessation, we gotten five times the quit rates of gold standard treatment, so that was nice. And we had developed this eating program, called “Eat right now,” that we had developed through an app so we could deliver it as a digital therapeutic. And somebody in that program, said, “Hey, it looks like anxiety is driving my eating habits, could you create a program for anxiety?” And I was thinking, “Well, I generally prescribe medications for this.”

But it put a bug in my ear, and I went back and looked at the literature, and it turns out way back in the 1980s, people had been talking about anxiety being driven like other habits and when I saw that connection, I was thinking, “Well, I know how to work with habits, that’s my research.” I had never thought about anxiety that way, so I developed a program that we called it Unwinding Anxiety. And we delivered it through an app so that we could measure it and study it, and we got a 67% reduction in clinically validated anxiety scores. And just to put that into context, the number needed to treat, for medications was 5.2, you know, one in five? And for this study, it was 1.6, so much better effects than I had seen with medications.

Brett McKay: Well, so I wanna go back to this idea of anxiety being a habit ’cause that’s the big thrust of your book, is looking at anxiety as a habit that you have. But before we do, what is anxiety exactly? ‘Cause we see this word thrown around a lot, people… I even hear like kids, “I’m anxious.” So as a clinician, how do you define anxiety?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yeah, one of the definitions that I like is that it’s a feeling of nervousness or unease about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. So it’s this feeling that comes up, and I summarize it as fear of the future, ’cause we start to worry about something in the future. Not something that’s happening right now.

Brett McKay: Gotcha, and so is anxiety the same as… Is it synonymous to fear? Is it the same as worrying? ‘Cause I think those are words we throw in interchangeably with anxiety.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, so I think of anxiety is a feeling in the body and worrying is a mental behavior. So those two are very, very closely linked. Whereas fear is fear, fear is different. So that feeling of nervousness, that feeling of unease can lead to the mental behavior of worrying, which then feeds back and drives more anxiety. That’s how these two can get connected in a loop. To form any habit you need three elements, a trigger, a behavior, and a result. And from a neuroscience perspective, that result has to be rewarding in some way. So the feeling of anxiety can then trigger the mental behavior of worrying, and that mental behavior of worrying gives us the reward of feeling like we’re in control, or at least that we’re doing something, which feels better than doing nothing. And then that feeds back so that the next time we feel anxious, our brain says, “Oh, last time you worried, you should do that again.”

Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s how anxiety is a habit? You have the trigger, this feeling of anxiety, the behavior is the worrying or thinking about stuff ruminating, and then the reward is, “Well, I feel like I’m doing something,” even though you’re actually not.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Exactly, yeah, yeah. We all are doing something for, to be clear, we’re worrying, but are we doing something that’s helping the situation? Not so much.

Brett McKay: So wait, what causes the anxiety in the first place, that feeling you have? Is it just, depends on the person?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, and it could be anything. Often, we get stuck in these habit loops of trying to figure out why we’re anxious. That’s just a dead end, so sometimes, it just comes on. For people with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, that can come on early in the morning and go all day.

Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s when it becomes… Like you just have a general anxiety about pretty much everything. Some people, you might be anxious about your job, for example, and that’s it. Whenever you’re not working, you’re okay, but a person with generalized anxiety disorder, they’re gonna be worried about pretty much everything throughout the day.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, and it could just be that they’re worried. There might not even be anything that they have to be worried about, they’re just worried. And in fact, [laughter] I’ve had patients who’ve worried so much in their lives that it’s been such a habit. As they start to worry less and have moments where they’re not worrying, they start to worry that they’re not worried because they feel like there’s something wrong that they’re not worrying. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Based on your work with patients and your research, why does it seem like there’s an uptick in anxiety amongst Americans and Westerners in general? Like what’s going on that’s encouraging more people to get on this anxious habit loop?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, and I would say this is worldwide. And it really… The pandemic was a great… Well, I should say unfortunate, but amazing natural experiment in anxiety. So, the hypothesis is that our brains don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty prompts us into action to get information to try to reduce that uncertainty. So we’ve had waves and waves of uncertainty over the last couple of years, where anybody can think of a gazillion different things, whether it’s how dangerous the original Coronavirus or the COVID-19 was to economics, to schools, to whatnot. Any time there’s a new wave of uncertainty, our brains start to… Well, they’re supposed to be thinking and planning, but if there isn’t accurate information, our thinking and planning brains spin out into fear and dread where they worry about this or that, or this or that, or this or that. So, we’ve seen that come into play where anxiety levels have spiked, they’ve stayed pretty high because there’s a pretty constant uncertainty, a lot more uncertainty than there has been in the past, and we’re also, as a world, getting more in the habit of worrying.

Brett McKay: And you also make this point that the digital world that we live in through our devices also contribute to this anxiety habit loop. How so?

Dr. Jud Brewer: So information is like food for our brain, it helps us survive, it helps us think and plan, so if there’s uncertainty, if we get information, that uncertainty reduces. If you think of our ancient ancestors, if they saw a saber-tooth tiger, they knew that was accurate information, they could run away and survive. In modern day, not only do we have a deluge of information, thanks to the Internet, we can get more information than we could ever digest, but we also have, layered on top of that, misinformation, where people are inadvertently saying things that are inaccurate, and then disinformation, where people are overtly, where on purpose, they are saying things that are not true. And we have to sort through all of that. Suddenly we have to become an expert in every one of these fields to really try to figure out whether what somebody is saying or posting online is true, and that in itself adds to those layers of uncertainty, and all of that builds anxiety.

Brett McKay: Alright, so let’s go back to this idea of anxiety as a habit, and we talked about the general habit loop, so there’s the trigger. It’s a feeling of anxiety. It can be caused by anything. It just depends on the person, but particularly, it’s uncertainty about something. Typically, the action when we experience anxiety is worrying. We start thinking about what’s going on. And then the reward is, “Oh, it feels like we’re doing something. We are doing something.” And so we just keep doing that anxiety habit loop. Besides worrying, are there other actions you find that people take whenever they experience the trigger of anxiety?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, I see a number of generally unhealthful coping mechanisms, and I see this in my clinic, and I see this in everyday life, where anxiety triggers us to do something because it feels unpleasant, so our brains try to do something to make it go away. And that could be anything from distracting ourselves by going on our social media feeds, we could be drinking alcohol, eating food, so I see a lot of this, or I’ve even seen it where they call it the COVID-20, where somebody’s gained 20 pounds over the… During COVID because they’re anxious, and they are working from home, and they go to their refrigerator and they eat.

Brett McKay: So with other ways besides worrying, it could be eating, shopping online, surfing the Internet, smoking? It could be anything that just soothes the anxiety is going to be a potential action you take because you experience that anxiety?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, yes, and we get that brief relief, whether it’s drinking alcohol or doing any of these other things, and that brief relief feeds back and says, “Oh, next time you’re anxious, you should do this again.”

Brett McKay: Okay, so knowing that anxiety is the trigger for worrying, or drinking or surfing the web or whatever, I can see someone getting the idea that, “Okay, you can change the anxiety habit loop just the way you change any other habit loop, by substituting the behavior of worrying for something more adaptive or something that will give you more positive results.” So someone might think, “When I experience anxiety, instead of doing my typical response of worrying, I’ll just replace worrying with something like, “I’m gonna do 10 push-ups instead,” but you make the case that hacking the habit loop like that for anxiety doesn’t work. Why is that? And what do you recommend doing instead?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yeah, there are… So it makes sense, 10 pushups, but you could… If you’re anxious, you could suddenly become pretty strong, ’cause you’re doing a bunch of pushups. So the problem there is that 10 push-ups don’t actually fix the root cause of the anxiety. And often we don’t know what the root cause of the anxiety is. And so, if we try to go to some substitution behavior or some distraction behavior, we just have to do it more and more and more. So, if it’s… Let’s use the 10 push-ups as an example, somebody might be anxious, they do 10 push-ups, they don’t actually feel less anxious by that much, so they do 10 more and suddenly they just can’t do any more push-ups, but they’re still anxious. So here, it’s helpful to really go to the root cause and really understand how any habit is formed anxiety or otherwise, and then really tap into that system, once you can really work with it. It’s kind of like understanding how your mind works is the first step in working with your mind and with anxiety, that’s absolutely true.

Brett McKay: And so, yeah, you say the first step in getting the handle on your anxiety, Unwinding Anxiety, is you call map out your anxiety habit loops?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, and that’s as simple as just finding what the trigger is, what the behavior is and what the result is. So the trigger typically is the feeling of anxiety, that’s pretty straightforward, the behavior is that worrying, that’s one of the typical ones, but you’ve named some of the others as well. We might eat some food, drink alcohol, smoke a cigarette, go on the Internet, procrastinate or whatever, and then map out what the result is. Is it an avoidance behavior? Do I feel a little bit better because I’m avoiding it? Do I feel like I’m in control because I’m worrying? Or whatever the result is, and once we can map those three things out, that starts to give us a picture of what our mind is doing. And that mapping process is really critical as that critical first step for working with the behavior.

Brett McKay: And you highlight… You have some case studies of patients you’ve worked with, where just doing this mapping process that goes a long way, they suddenly… Like, it decreases their anxiety, not significantly, but for some people significantly. What is it about mapping out your anxiety habit loops that can immediately, before you even start doing anything, decrease anxiety, what’s going on there, you think?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Well, this goes back to the uncertainty, and how our brains don’t like uncertainty. And if we don’t know… You know, if our brain is like a black box, suddenly if you… Or it’s like a dark room. You don’t know what’s in there, and you go in there, “What could it be?” And you flip on the light switch and you’re like, “Oh, this is what’s in the room.” Yeah, I’ll give a concrete example, I had a patient who came in, who was referred for anxiety, he had… He described how when he was in a car he would have these thoughts like he might get in an accident, he would have panic attacks and avoid driving on the highway. And so I just mapped this out with him, like, “Okay, what’s the trigger of these thoughts? What’s the behavior? Avoiding driving on the highway. What’s the result? You can avoid having panic attacks,” and then I just drew arrows between those three. And importantly, so that first arrow from the trigger to the behavior, that second arrow from the behavior to the not having panic attacks and then the third arrow, not having panic attacks feeds back to those thoughts.

So the next time he has a thought, he says, “I can’t drive,” and then suddenly he’s really limiting himself in having… Meeting all the criteria for a panic disorder. Just seeing that, I literally pulled out a piece of paper, mapped it out with him for 30 seconds after taking his history, and I could see the light bulb go off in his head, because he just didn’t know how that process worked. As simple as it is, most of us just don’t see these things, and so, that reduces the uncertainty, because he can see how his brain works and I can explain to him, “Well, this is a normal process, your brain is adopting this old system that helps you survive that’s just ironically making you more anxious,” and that in itself can reduce the anxiety, because the uncertainty is lowered.

Brett McKay: And one thing you remind me, you’re mapping out these habit loops, you’re trying to… You’re supposed to take a mindful approach to it. You’re not supposed to beat yourself up like, “Man, why am I such a dummy, that I have this dumb anxiety habit loop?” You’re just supposed to be as objective and distance from it as possible so you can get a grasp on. ‘Cause if you do that, beat yourself up, you’re just putting yourself in another anxiety habit loop.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, absolutely, that self-judgmental habit loop. And then, that habit loop distracts us from working with the original habit loop as well. So, yes, it’s… I think of it as approaching it like a scientist or a physician, or a lawyer, or somebody that’s just trying to get the facts, so they can really understand what’s happening.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. Alright, so the first part is you map out your habit loops, and this again, requires you to be mindful throughout the day, kind of noticing things and making observations. After that, the next step is to update your brain’s reward value, and this involves… I like how this word… You use the word disenchant, you wanna disenchant your anxious actions. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Jud Brewer: So, this really is what gets to the heart of how our brains learn. And our brains are set up to be as efficient as possible, and we set up habits as a way to learn how rewarding a certain behavior is, and then forget about the details. I think of it as set and forget. So you set the reward value and you forget about the details, what would be… So a concrete example would be food. And our brains are set up to try to maximize calorie intake because back in the day, our ancestors didn’t have refrigerators, and so, when you’ve got a good calorie source, the idea was to pack ’em in. So we prefer cake to broccoli, because our brains are set up to say, “Hey, cake has more calories.” So we set that as a habit loop, and we don’t have to re-learn the reward value of cake every time we eat cake, we don’t have to say, “Hmm, I wonder if that’s any good,” we just look at it and it’s like, “Cake, let’s eat it.” So.

That reward value system is set up for every behavior that we do, where we’ll prefer one behavior to another, we set… The behavior as a habit, and we don’t change it until we update that reward value, and the only way to update the reward value is to pay attention, is to bring awareness in. A concrete example would be if a new bakery opens up in my neighborhood, and I don’t know how good the cake is there, I go in there, I eat some cake and if it’s the best cake ever, I get what’s called a positive predictioner, where it’s better than expected, I learn, “Okay, go back there for cake.” If I eat it and it’s crappy, my brain says, “Eh, don’t bother,” and I get this negative predictioner, which says, “It’s worse than predicted, so don’t go back there,” so I learn; that’s how the learning process happens. We can apply that process to any behavior, so that we can update the reward value to how rewarding it is right now, so if I learned the real value of cake when I was five and I’m just mindlessly eating cake when I’m 45, that’s probably not so helpful. [chuckle] If I pay attention and I notice, “Oh, when I just eat a ton of cake, I get a sugar rush and I crash and I gain weight, and I get cavities and I get diabetes,” I can start to see that’s actually not that rewarding, and in fact, my lab, we did a study, we have this app called Eat Right Now that helps people pay attention as they over-eat.

 It only takes about 10 or 15 times of somebody really paying attention as they overeat for that reward value to drop below zero where they start to shift their behavior, so we can do the same thing with worrying… And I have people ask a simple question. As they’re worrying, I ask them to ask themselves, “What am I getting from this?” And feel into their direct experience, and what people typically report is that worrying doesn’t feel very good itself, it doesn’t keep their family members safe or solve a problem or do whatever their brain thinks it’s gonna do beyond distracting them, and when they can start to see that really clearly, they start to become disenchanted with it, they’re not as excited to do it.

We see the same thing with my patients who wanna quit smoking, I have them pay attention as they smoke and they start to realize, “Oh, it doesn’t feel very good.” I run a live group for anybody using our apps, and just today, I was running a group and a woman was talking about how she ate some tortilla chips with cheese on them for dinner, and she air fried them, so… [chuckle] Better than deep frying I guess. And we explored, “What did she get from that?” And she said, “I had a stomach ache and I couldn’t get to sleep until 3:00 in the morning,” and I said, “Well, what does it feel like now? If I put some of those chips in front of you, would you eat them, what would be your likely… ” And she said, “Zero. They’re just, it’s disgusting.” So there is a great example of becoming disenchanted with our behavior simply by paying attention to the results… What it gives us when we do it… Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: No, it makes perfect sense. In fact, I applied this to social media. You just notice like you keep going there and you open up Instagram and you kind of scroll through, and then you have to sit and think, “I don’t feel good doing this, I’m not getting anything out of this,” and it’s amazing. It extinguishes any desire to open it up anymore… ‘Cause it’s like…

Dr. Jud Brewer: That’s disenchantment.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So the question you ask is like, “What am I getting out of this?” And usually the answer is, “Not a whole lot. In fact, it makes me feel terrible,” and if that’s the answer, then you just stop doing that whenever you experience anxiety.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, and I wouldn’t say, so often people think, “Oh, I’ll stop doing that, that’s… ”

Brett McKay: Right.

Dr. Jud Brewer: It’d be great if I could just have one visit with every patient where they come in and they say, “I wanna stop social media,” and I would dub them, I’d say, “Stop doing that,” and they would just leave and stop doing it. So the critical piece here is that the reflection on the previous action helps us load that reward value into our brain, so we can ask ourselves, “Do I really wanna do this again?” And we can feel into the experience of last time, and like you described with social media, we’re like, “Eh, this doesn’t feel so good.” And so we naturally are disenchanted so that we are not pulled to do it again without having to force ourselves not to do it again.

Brett McKay: Right, there’s no… Yeah, that’s what I like about it. There’s no force or grit in your teeth with this approach…

Dr. Jud Brewer: No, not at all.

Brett McKay: Okay, so after you disenchanted the maladaptive behavior, whether it’s worrying or eating or smoking, whatever, the third part is creating what you call a bigger, better offer for your brain… What do you mean by that?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, so this is an homage to myself and all of us that back in high school when we had a date set up for Friday night and then Friday afternoon our date lets us know that their parents are requiring them to power wash the car, or something that’s ridiculous, and create an excuse.

Brett McKay: Wash their hair.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, yeah, where clearly somebody else called them and wanted to go out on a date… And that person was the bigger, better offer. [laughter] And so I think of it this way, ’cause that’s how our brains work, our brains are given a choice between A and B, they’re gonna pick the one that’s more rewarding, so if we become disenchanted with these old behaviors, why not give our brain something better to do and not in the case of if you’re anxious, just go scroll on social media or drink alcohol, because we can start to see that those things aren’t that rewarding themselves and don’t fix the root problem, but instead we can tap into things that are intrinsically rewarding. So if we’re anxious, we can get curious about what that anxiety feels like instead of worrying, and we can even compare those two… Well, you tell me. What feels better: Being curious or worrying about something?

Brett McKay: Being curious works, yeah…

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yeah, it’s a no-brainer. To our brains, of course, curiosity feels better, and here we can actually get at the root cause of the issue, so again, anxiety pops up often out of the blue, it doesn’t matter what caused it, but what the problem in there is… Is that we feed it by worrying or pushing it away, and so instead of pushing it away, this phrase, “The only way out is through,” comes to mind. You might have heard that before.

The only way out is through. So instead of running away from the anxiety or distracting ourselves or worrying about it, what if instead we turn toward it? And what helps us turn toward anxiety is curiosity. I love this quote from James Stevens, who said or wrote, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” So curiosity is like a super power, and as we turn toward the feeling of anxiety, we can start to notice that it is simply sensations and thoughts and emotions in our body, it’s not something that we have to run away from, and the more we turn toward it, the more we become familiar with it and the more we can see, “Oh, these are sensations? They come and go, I don’t have to do anything about them, I can simply learn to be with them, and the curiosity helps me not only learn about them, but also be with them.” And that’s the healing process where we can learn to be. It’s like the being is the new doing.

Brett McKay: So and what this looks like, is you start experiencing some anxiety, a curious approach, where you’re like, “Well, okay, where am I experiencing? Is it, I’m feeling like a tightness in my chest? Is it my pulse, you can check your Apple watch and you feel your heart rate’s going, is that what would it look like?

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes, really sticking with our direct experience, not the concept or worrying about, why am I anxious and trying to figure that out, really just dropping in and seeing what’s going on.

Brett McKay: And then the other section about using some little hacks, I guess you can call them about widening your eyes to maybe encourage or nudge yourself and be curious, what’s going on there?

Dr. Jud Brewer: So this again goes back to evolutionary neuroscience and psychology. There are some great experiments where people looked at, what do our eyes naturally do when we are… Let’s start with something different like angry? So when we’re angry… So just think of a time when you were angry and anybody listening in can do this themselves and see what your eyes naturally do. So would you say that your eyes narrow or do they widen when you’re angry?

Brett McKay: They narrow… Get that flinty look in your eye.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yeah, because anger is about focused [laughter] behavior, it says, “I know what the problem is and I’m gonna do something about it.” [laughter] So we’re literally narrowed in on the, “Problem.” And we are laser-focused on doing something about it. With curiosity, what do your eyes do when you’re curious? Do they narrow or do they widen?

Brett McKay: Typically get narrow. I’d say widen but then if I’m getting focused on, I’d probably narrow my eyes.

Dr. Jud Brewer: So again, when we’re trying to gather more information, so both with curiosity and interestingly also with fear, which makes sense, our eyes get really wide because they have to take in information. And so here if we aren’t curious, we can simply use this trick, it’s called semantic memory. So semantic memory basically just means that our bodies will hold certain postures or positions or feelings that are associated with emotions. So for anxious for example, my shoulders tend to be more contracted or hunched or kind of closed in than when I’m not anxious. So if we’re not curious, we can simply open our eyes really wide and see if that can help induce the feeling of curiosity itself. That’s kind of why it’s a hack, because we simply open our eyes really wide, and anybody can do this right now, it’s like when you open your eyes really wide, do that actually help you become a little more curious in that moment?

Brett McKay: You also tell people to say, “Mm-hmm.” Verbally say, “I’m interested in that.” And you might feel silly, but I did it. I was taking a walk the other day and I did it and I think it works. There’s something to it. [laughter]

Dr. Jud Brewer: The thing I like about “Mm-hmm” I think of it as a curiosity mantra, is that it takes us out of our thinking brain and really into our feeling body because that’s where all the action is. And so if we’re anxious, for example, we can go “Mm-hmm, where am I anxious right now? Is it more on the right side or the left side of my body?” And that, mm-hmm, can really open us to our experience. Another way that I like to play with this is, it’s kind of like if we feel anxious and we start to worry and we go, “Oh, no I’m anxious? Why am I anxious? I’m I gonna be anxious all day? Is there anything that’s gonna fix that? And we can notice that. We can map out that habit loop and then we can go, “Oh, here’s anxiety. What does this feel like in my body?” So instead of, “Why am I anxious? Or how long is this gonna last?” Instead of, “Oh” we can go, “Oooh” And that opens us to our experience so we can really drop in and feel it. It feels like, and step out of the worry habit loop.

Brett McKay: Okay, so just to recap here, first steps map out your habit, your anxiety habit loops that you have. This just requires you be be mindful throughout the day whenever you experience anxiety, pay attention to what you do and what the reward you get out of that. And then after that, the second step is to disenchant that anxiety behavior. So just think about, “Man, what am I getting? How do I feel whenever I do this thing?” Usually the answer is not great, and so just doing that naturally your body or your mind and your body, I guess you can say, would kind of extinguish that behavior if you’re not getting any value out of it. And then third part is offer a bigger, better offer to your brain through curiosity.

Dr. Jud Brewer: That’s it in a nutshell.

Brett McKay: But I think it’s interesting to point out and you’ve mentioned this, but I really wanna hit this home, in this process you are never figuring out what is making you anxious, or why are you anxious, and you say that you actually… It’s called the why trap. It’s actually not very useful to sometimes… Or to figure out why you’re anxious. Why is that?

Dr. Jud Brewer: So as a card carrying board-certified psychiatrist, this might sound heretical, that we’re not trying to go back to someone’s childhood or figure out why they’re anxious. And the reason for that is that, here my neuroscience hat wins out, and when I think about… And I look at the equations that have to do with behavior change, none of them have to do with childhood… [laughter]

Or vast experience. It’s not that that experience isn’t important or meaningful, it absolutely is, but that’s not what changes behavior. And like you’re pointing out, we can get stuck in these “Why” habit loops, trying to figure out, “Why am I anxious?” Thinking that suddenly, if we figure out why we’re anxious, it’s gonna fix it. Well, that “Why” is generally in the past, so it certainly can be insightful, it can reduce uncertainty, but it’s not gonna fix the habit itself. This is why I focus on the “What,” like, “What’s happening, and what am I getting from being stuck in this loop?”

Brett McKay: And also, even if you do figure out what’s causing the anxiety, you might not be able to do anything about it. Maybe something at your job that just… And no matter what you do, you cannot get rid of that thing that triggers the anxiety. So this approach is that, “Okay, well, what can I change? What can I focus… Well, I can change my behavior by discounting or disenchanting that maladaptive behavior and have a different approach to it.”

Dr. Jud Brewer: Absolutely. I think of the Serenity Prayer, it’s like, “Let me accept things that I can’t change and have the strength or courage to change that which I can.” If we can see very clearly what we can’t change, we can stop banging our head against that wall, so that that frees up the energy to look for the doors. [chuckle] And sometimes we do need to find the door. We’re like, “Wow, this job really isn’t [chuckle] a good fit for me,” and we can walk out it, as compared to being too exhausted to even notice.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned some other issues that hacking the anxiety loop, or unwinding anxiety, addiction, over-eating, smoking, it works with this. Does it work for other things like depression?

Dr. Jud Brewer: There’s a lot of good evidence showing programs like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy can really help people with depression. And what that highlights is that this habit loop, whether I think of worry and anxiety as future-oriented habits, the story of me in the future, worrying and trying to protect myself against the future, or what might happen in the future. Depression is more about beating ourselves up over what happened in the past. And so when we ruminate, we can get stuck in those habit loops around this is terrible, I’m terrible, the world’s terrible, or whatever. And bringing awareness to this and using the same processes can really help us not reinforce those habits, and these programs have been shown to be really, really helpful for depression.

Brett McKay: Yeah, there’s another, Richard O’Connor. He’s a psychologist. He wrote a book, Undoing Depression. And he kinda makes the case that you do with anxiety, that depression is just a series of habits that you have, and you have to undo those habits.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Certainly, and I think that’s part of depression. It’s often not the whole thing. Certainly, for some people there’s a really strong biological component where they just… They’re too exhausted [chuckle], let’s put it that way, the term may not be perfect. But they’re just… They have such low energy that they can’t even think, like thinking feels like they’re going through sludge, or through some bog. And so here, it certainly can help with the thinking elements, but it’s not necessarily… I just wanna emphasize how it can be very helpful for some people, where some medications can be really helpful for those biological components.

Brett McKay: As we were talking, and another problem I can see this habit approach could help, is anger. Anger is a habit. You have this trigger and then your typical response is, “I’m gonna get all angry.” And then the reward is, “Well, I feel like I did something,” but then you sit and notice, like, “How do I feel when I’m angry?” Not really good. And so you start disenchanting that anger response.

Dr. Jud Brewer: Yes. And I think here, and I’ve certainly… This has been helpful for me, [chuckle] in terms of working with my own frustration and anger, is looking at how we’re directing our energy. So anger can feel empowering. It can often make us feel like we’re self-righteous, like, “I’m doing this for the right reasons,” or whatever. “I’m getting angry. I’m doing something.” But we have to look to see what our anger is getting us, and is it the most skillful or helpful way to change something? If there’s some injustice in the world, is getting angry gonna be the best way to solve that problem, or is it just gonna make other people push back and make it harder to solve a problem? Is it gonna be an inefficient use of our energy? So here, even for myself, I ask myself, “What am I getting from the anger?” And that opens up the space when I become disenchanted with it, it opens the space and frees up the energy to ask, “Well, is there another way to go about changing things?”

Brett McKay: Well, Judson, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Dr. Jud Brewer: I have a website, Dr Jud, that has a bunch of free resources, links to my books, to the apps that we talked about, and other various and sundry things.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Judson Brewer, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Jud Brewer: It’s been my pleasure, thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest there is Dr. Judson Brewer. He’s the author of Unwinding Anxiety. It’s available on and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our shownotes at, where you can find links to resources, read and delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, we post thousands of articles. We know there is about pretty much anything you think of. And, if you like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you could do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check-out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify. It helps that a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding all listening to AOM podcast to put what you’ve heard into action.

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