Yesterday, I was corresponding with a friend about our mutual experience of anxiety and depression. We were talking about what was working and what was not working. As I was crafting a reply, this aired on 1A: Why Willing Yourself To Be Less Anxious Doesn’t Work — And What Actually Helps Instead
The timing was uncanny. Indeed, it was synchronistic. So, I paid attention. And, I took notes. I will share some of the take aways I gleamed for this important show. If you have been struggling with anxiety and depression, especially this year, this show is well worth a listen.
Between the uncertainties of getting a COVID-19 vaccine, going back to the office and staying connected with one another, it’s no wonder anxiety is on the rise.
As the pandemic recently reached its one-year anniversary, about a third of U.S. adults say they have experienced sleeplessness or anxiety in the last week, according to the Pew Research Center.
We’re talking with Dr. Judson Brewer, a neuroscientist and associate professor at Brown University about the science behind our anxious feelings and explains why common fixes, like simply willing yourself to be okay, don’t work. His new book is Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.
What’s causing us to feel anxious these days? And how can we treat it?
Dr. Judson Brewer discusses how worry and curiosity are binary functions in the brain. When the brain engages in worry, it cannot engage in curiosity. Worrying makes us feel smaller and contracted while curiosity makes us feel bigger and expansive. Both have evolutionary origins and functions. The problem is how complicated our modern lives have become tricking our brains and causing destructive habits and patterns to develop and become entrenched in the brain.
Dr. Brewer talked about the part of the brain that gets engaged when a person worries. It is an older part of the brain known as the cingulate cortex. This is a critical part of the limbic system and involves a group of interconnected brain structures involved in emotions along with processing emotional destress of pain. It helps us survive.
The Cingulate Cortex
I found this image of the part of the brain that gets engage when we worry while I listened.
Dr. Brewer discusses how the Cingulate Cortex is a much older structure of the brain, making it very powerful in establishing behaviors and patterns in our life. The parts of our brain that get engaged when we become curious are more complex and they also activate and engage the Prefrontal Cortex, which is the newest part of our brains and the weakest.
The Prefrontal Cortex & the Role of Curiosity to Our Wellbeing and Mental Health
Why is the sky blue? Staring up at the big, wide space above their heads, children often ask a variation of this question to an adult. Although the answers may seem clear enough, we’re not always satisfied with what we get. Why we know, or why we care to know about the world around or inside of us is due to a distinct desire: curiosity.
Curiosity motivates us to understand the world, our communities, our bodies, and our brains. Click on the targets in the image to explore how curiosity inspires us to investigate the mechanisms of our daily life.
Dr. Brewer explained how we can strengthen this part of our brain and ability through mindfulness training. Meditation is one part of a bigger circle of learning how to be more mindful in our bodies, especially when we begin to feel to collapsing feeling of worry and anxiety.
Everyone learns habits that get encoded in the brain through the Cingulate Cortex and other lower brain structures. Everyone also has the ability to bring awareness to their situation, both internal (e.g., are you worrying, feeling anxious, feeling fearful) and external (e.g., what triggered this inner feeling [the present], where did this feeling originate from [the past], how valid is this feeling now and moving forward in your life [the future]).
The 3 Gears of Changing Your Brain
Once you bring awareness to your situation, you can begin to remap your responses to them. You can rewire your brain! Dr. Brewer outlined 3 gears to work through that include:
Gear 1: Mapping Habit Loops
Ask yourself what the behavior you are engaging in (e.g., going on social media, over eating, compulsively cleaning, compulsively shopping, binging Netflix, taking mind altering drugs) attempting to help you do. Often these repetitive behaviors are attempting to help you overpower intense, uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, worry, and fear that have become ingrained in patterned repetitive behavior that does not do a good job of calming these feelings. The trigger is less important than the behavior you slip into to calm the rising anxiety and worry. Bringing your awareness to map you habit loops is the first step, the first gear to get yourself out of it.
Gear 2: Mindfulness
This is where you use your ability of awareness to get curious about your behavior: “Hmmm… what am I getting from worrying?” So you realize by becoming curious about your behavior of planning a trip to the airport 20 times isn’t doing anything to keep yourself and your family safe. This insight give you a space to do something different. You can also use mindfulness to practice retrospective reflection as well because sometimes the compulsive behavior is so powerful it is impossible to avert it until you strengthen this other part of your brain: curiosity, mindfulness, and awareness.
Gear 3: The Bigger, Better Offer
This is where you offer your brain a better offer to deal with a situation that triggers anxiety, worry, or fear. Dr. Brewer talks about how we become habituated to compulsive attempts to reduce our anxiety (e.g., ‘Oh, I feel anxious, I am going to look at puppies on the Internet’, soon the brain becomes habituated to puppies and needs a stronger stimulus, so now you need to find puppies and kitten together; then the brain become habituated to puppies and kittens, so now you need to find puppies, kittens, and baby chicks… and so it goes on and on… a compulsive addictive behavior has been established). What the brain does not become habituated to is curiosity! This is the key to get out of the loop.
They were running out of time at this point in the program, so go to Dr. Jud Brewer’s website to learn more:
Have a Great Day! And remember, you are the master of your Ship of Self — go forth and explore new inner territory inside your mind and by doing so, repattern your brain.