Review: Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer

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In my quest to relieve my anxiety and stress, I stumbled across Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer.

This is a good book for those who are looking to break the cycle of anxiety, but also for anyone who is looking to change their habits or lifestyle. Because anxiety results in a lot of ingrained habits that, while they may have provided some relief at one point, are detrimental to our wellbeing, this book focuses a lot on ways to successfully change habits.

Dr. Brewer walks you through how to use mindfulness to recognize your anxiety triggers and your reaction. This isn’t a meditation-heavy book, although he does describe the benefits of meditation and his experience with it. Rather, he encourages you to be mindful of what you’re doing: think about things you have done before and be aware of what you’re doing in your day to day life so you can recognize when you’re doing them in real time. So often we do things mindlessly, and when we are in auto-pilot, we aren’t able to change our bad habits that are actually reinforcing our anxiety.

Details About “Unwinding Anxiety”

The book is in 3 parts. The first part deals more directly with anxiety itself. He has an activity to list out your triggers, the behavior you default to, and the result. It seems like a simple exercise, but I did have trouble with this. I couldn’t think of many when I initially did it. I believe he does say that it’s an exercise to continue doing, and as the days went on, I added more to my table. Here are a few examples of mine:

See foodEat foodFeel a sense of relief and happiness for about one minute
Start working on long task and feel overwhelmedCheck social mediaAvoidance; Feel more stressed that no progress is made
Feel anxiousSearch for food to eatEat whatever is easily available

Parts two and three focus more on habit change. We’ve all built habits that are no longer serving us and, in many cases, make our anxiety worse. Dr. Brewer goes through the science of how habits are formed, which helps explain why his methods will work. Part two goes into how your brain constantly reassesses what value each action does, and how you can use this to break your habits. When you are mindful of what you are doing, you can be aware of what the real consequences of your bad habits are. Your brain will update its reward value.

In part three, he focuses on strategies to change your behavior. While many popular strategies focus on habit replacement (ex., eating candy instead of smoking a cigarette), Dr. Brewer does not recommend that. Replacing one habit for another oftentimes has the same result as the old habit. Instead, he encourages curiosity, which you can read about on his blog. He also provides methods to aid your mindfulness, including the RAIN method (Tara Brach has done a lot of work on expanding this) and Loving Kindness mediation.

Favorite Parts

Quote from someone else

At one point, the author quotes Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s Three Routes to Healing:

  1. You must let the pain visit
  2. You must allow it to teach you
  3. You must not allow it to overstay

All three of these steps are equally important. I think they distill the healing process very well.

Anxiety as a comfort

There was one sentence that really stuck out to me. Dr. Brewer was describing a patient and said

Because of its familiarity, anxiety had strangely become a comfort to him, yet he had outgrown it now.

I felt this deeply, because it’s where I am. Anxiety and stress have become my safe and familiar place, but they are no longer serving me.

When not to use substitutions for bad habits

As I mentioned, the author doesn’t like substituting new habits for old; he wants to break the habit loop altogether. When evaluating whether your substitutions feed the habit loop, ask yourself if they result in restlessness, contraction, temporary fixes, or a desire for more. These are all signs of habituation.

Overall: Recommended

I bought the audiobook version, and enjoyed the narrator. With books like these, you don’t really want to notice the narrator, and I didn’t. He had a calm voice, spoke clearly at an even pace, and didn’t do any weird voices.

If you’re on the fence, check out the author’s TEDMED talk. If you found it interesting, I would recommend the book Unwinding Anxiety.


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