I listened to a great interview last week that Tami Simon, founder of Soundstrue.com, conducted with renowned neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer. The topic was Dr. Jud’s (what people call him) research on unwinding anxiety. I highly recommend giving it a listen. Here’s the link.

Anxiety is a massive, complex topic. Sadly, it’s also all too prevalent in our go, go, go society of today.

Adults. Kids. Teenagers. People in their 20s. It seems no group is immune from the ravages of anxiety.

My battles with anxiety

I had some awful bouts with it in my younger days and I can say from experience that the psychic and physical pain anxiety inflicts can be unbearable. One episode in college forced me to go on several runs a day of many miles for multiple days just to tire myself out and keep the anxiety partially at bay.

I’m not an expert on all the treatments. Medication, therapy, exercise, meditation, or some combination thereof, would likely be the main ones.

But Dr. Jud’s approach resonated with me. Not surprisingly, the idea at the heart of it is mindfulness.

The anxiety habit loop

He starts by identifying the basic habit loop of anxiety. What’s a habit loop? It has three elements: A trigger, a behavior and a reward/result. I’m stressed (trigger), that leads me to have a couple shots of whiskey (behavior) and I feel calm (result/reward).

Dr. Jud relates the habit loop of anxiety as: 1. We feel anxious (trigger); 2. We worry (behavior); 3. We feel some level of being in control (result/reward).

So the anxiety triggers the worrying which serves to give us some control. Which makes sense.

Because any time we feel something unpleasant our brain goes right to, “Do something to make this unpleasant feeling go away!”

Today’s ‘do anything to stop it’ culture

This has gotten exponentially worse in today’s world where any time we feel any kind of discomfort we’re encouraged to take a pill. Or eat some food.

So if you’re sitting there, let’s say right upon waking up in the morning, and a wave of anxiety washes over you, the last thing you want to do is…nothing. So we go to worrying. “Is junior going to flunk his math test?” “I hope my dinner party tonight isn’t a total disaster.” “My boss acted weird toward me yesterday. Am I going to get fired today?”

It seems crazy, but giving voice to our anxiety does, however insidiously, produce some level of control.

Two problems with this habit

But there are two massive problems with this. First, the worrying and the control it gains us, doesn’t work. It doesn’t make the anxiety go away.

Second, the worrying actually makes the anxiety worse! So not only is it not helping, it’s making matters worse.

Worrying isn’t the only behavior we use when anxiety strikes. One that will be familiar to all of us is distraction.

How we distract ourselves

Like what? Like picking up your phone when you feel anxious and checking your Instagram feed. Or your Twitter feed. Or your Facebook feed. Or the stock market. Or ESPN sports scores.

But again, none of these alleviate the anxiety. They only make it worse.

The fire analogy

Why is that? Dr. Jud explains this effectively with a fire analogy. Worry and distractions provide fuel to the fire of anxiety. They give the fire strength and endurance.

Another way to describe it is that when we worry or distract ourselves, what we’re doing is resisting the anxiety. We’re pushing it away. And as the great Carl Jung famously said, “What we resist, persists.”

So if we want to curtail anxiety, step one is to stop fueling it.

Dr. Jud’s prescription

Which brings us to the key question of this article: What does Dr. Jud suggest that we do? In a nutshell, he advises that, instead of turning away from the anxiety by worrying or distracting, we do the opposite: We turn toward it.

How do we turn toward it? We place our attention on it. He calls this distress tolerance.

He advises us to be curious about our anxiety. Not curious in the manner of, “Where the hell did you come from, anxiety? I need to figure you out so I can get rid of you.” He calls that deprivational curiosity.

He counsels us to instead use interest curiosity. That means we turn toward our anxiety and say to ourselves, “Hmm. You’re fascinating. I wonder what you’re all about?”

It’s mostly mindfulness

For me, it’s just basic mindfulness. It’s putting our attention on what is in our moment-to-moment field of awareness. And when we’re anxious, you better believe that that feeling dominates our field of awareness.

Which leads to a key point. When we’re overwhelmed by anxiety, that’s all there is. Our entire being is swallowed up by the anxiety.

But when we lean away and observe it and just be with it, two entities co-exist. There’s us and the anxiety. Not just the anxiety. That in itself is hugely helpful.

It’s similar to dealing with chronic pain

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the iconic pioneer of mindfulness in America, began his studies on this by using it to treat chronic pain. He told the doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to send him the patients who weren’t responding to any other pain treatments. What he found was that his program, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, had significant success in helping these helpless patients reduce their pain.

A big part of that program was getting these patients to turn toward their pain rather than fighting with it and resisting it. All of the mental chatter of, “God, I hate this pain. This is killing me. How can I go on?” etc., greatly exacerbated the actual pain. When people work on eliminating that kind of resistance to the pain, it drops significantly.

Which is how it also works with many kinds of anxiety. I’ve found that when I feel anxious, simply stopping and placing my attention on it, without judging it or engaging with it, helps a ton.

We can’t excise anxiety

One key is to not try to eliminate the anxious feelings. Anxiety has a life of its own and it doesn’t respond well to our attempts to go inside and scoop it out, so to speak.

But just sitting quietly with it, doing nothing but nonjudgmentally observing it, usually results in at least a partial reduction in those feelings. That has been my experience and seemingly many of Dr. Jud’s patients.

The takeaway

It’s sounds so simple and frankly counterintuitive. “You want me to focus on my anxiety when I feel anxious?”


Sit with it. Breathe with it. Don’t touch it or tangle with it. Just be with it.

See what happens.