How to Train Your Mind Away from Anxiety
Needless to say, anxiety is on the rise right now. The continuing pandemic and the prospect of a Delta Variant winter; climate change; political uncertainty -- rates of anxiety have already been rising for decades, but in the last two years, they’ve skyrocketed.
As a behavioral neuroscientist who’s been studying anxiety and addiction for many years, I believe the key to unwinding this anxiety is understanding what it is and what it isn’t.
First, in contrast to fear, which is an instantaneous response that originates from very old parts of the brain (evolutionarily speaking), anxiety affects the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, a newer part of the brain that helps us to think and plan for the future. The PFC works well when there’s enough information to make a good prediction, but when information is lacking, our PFC can spin out endless versions of what might happen and what you should do. Eventually, the PFC might shut down entirely, creating the conditions for panic.
What this means is that you cannot suppress or think yourself out of anxiety. That’s calling on the PFC to fix the PFC, and it doesn’t work. It also doesn’t work to find some quick fix; anxiety is wired into your brain, and just reading some great tips doesn’t unwire it. Instead, in my book Unwinding Anxiety, I outline a three-step process, which I’ll summarize here. Not surprisingly, all of those steps are based on mindfulness.
1. Become Aware of Habit Loops
It can often be very difficult to be aware that we’re getting anxious, because anxiety creates what I call a habit loop. When uncertainty abounds, we often habitually engage in planning, fretting, checking the news feed, or distracting ourselves. Rarely do these habits provide valuable solutions, but they become so habitual that we may not even notice we’re doing them.
So the first step in unwinding anxiety is becoming aware of these habit loops even when you’re stuck in one. Everyone has their own loops; yours might be procrastination, or numbing out, or compulsive planning. See if you can explore what behaviors you engage in to dispel anxiety. Come to recognize them as coping mechanisms that may be covering up the real issue. And then, with your mindfulness practice as an aide, see if you can be aware of those behaviors when you’re doing them. And then…
2. Focus on the Negative
Whether you know it or not, your brain chooses which habits to adopt based on how rewarding the behavior is. The more rewarding a behavior is, the stronger the habit becomes.
That’s true even if the PFC knows the habit isn’t helpful. For example, most people prefer cake to broccoli. Sugar and fat have a lot of calories, so when we eat cake, part of our brain thinks, Calories— survival! And the habit of reaching for cake instead of broccoli when you’re feeling stressed out gets wired into the brain.
To unwire habits, you can again turn to mindfulness. Turn your mindful attention to what your coping mechanism really feels like, whether it’s doomscrolling or distraction, planning or emotional eating. Don’t investigate this intellectually; use your mindfulness to actually experience it firsthand. Pay attention to the body sensations, thoughts, and emotions that come as a result of the behavior. Gradually, though it may take a while, you will probably become disenchanted from the habit.
Becoming aware of what overthinking and over-scrolling feel like in the moment will teach your brain that they are not that rewarding. For example, planning is like cake— a little tastes good, but too much of it can be counterproductive, as it can induce anxiety about what can go wrong. Ask yourself, What do I get from this? See if you can identify exactly when the scale starts tipping from delicious to neutral to unpleasant.
3. Find a Bigger, Better Option
In place of that not-so-rewarding habit, you can give your brain a bigger, better reward. Mindful awareness can itself be that reward. If you’ve had a good meditation session, you know the feeling: open, expanded, aware. Get to know that experience. Teach your brain – through experience, not through persuasion or self-judgment – how much more pleasant it is than its anxiety habit.
Mindfulness also entails curiosity, which can calm the restless, driven quality of Do Something! that gets our anxiety habit-loops going. In an anxious moment, get curious about what’s happening in the body. Pick a single sensation – where is it? What is it? Is it changing? This curiosity can, itself, be a more fulfilling reward than trying to make your anxiety go away.
Or, get curious about the breath, which has the added benefit of helping you calm down. Slowly breathe in through your nose, right into wherever you feel anxiety in your body (don’t worry about being anatomically correct here, just go with it). Hold it there for a few seconds, and then, when you exhale, imagine some of that feeling flowing out with your breath. Give your brain something more rewarding and more pleasant to do than plan, worry, or speculate about the future.
Mindfulness is at the center of all three steps. It helps you notice when anxiety-driven behavior may be present, it helps you feel the effects of that behavior more clearly, and it provides you with a better option. Please, don’t try to think, judge, or persuade yourself out of anxiety. Over time, if you lean into the science and trust your own experience, you can train your mind away from anxiety, one moment at a time.
A psychiatrist and internationally known expert in clinical mindfulness training, Jud Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for addictions. Jud is the Director of Research at Brown University Mindfulness Center, one of the world's leading meditation research institutes.