Let’s talk about Unwinding Anxiety. But first, do you notice any connection between the following: Mars, bicycles, addiction, Matt Damon, anxiety? 

No? Well, I didn’t see it either, at least not until I read Unwinding Anxiety by Dr. Judson Brewer, a prominent addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist. His book was released earlier this month.

Dr. Brewer describes in the opening pages how he intends to “science the shit out of anxiety,” in the same way that Matt Damon did when faced with being isolated on Mars in the movie The Martian. 

So, we can cross Matt Damon, Mars, and anxiety off our list. But, what about bicycles and addiction? What do they have to do with anxiety?

To find out, read the rest of this book review, then order a copy of Unwinding Anxiety for yourself. 

Contents

Introduction: Unwinding Anxiety

Part 0 of Unwinding Anxiety: Understanding Your Mind

Anxiety and Fear: Is there a difference?

I’m not an (anxiety) addict…Yes, you are

Is your anxiety loopy? Yes, but not in the way you might think

What is your brain trying to do when you worry?

How the Unwinding Anxiety Program Came About

Part 1 of Unwinding Anxiety: First Gear

You’re reading an anxiety book review. Is this making you more anxious?

Why do habits exist and what’s the first step to changing them?

Being trumps doing

Is there ever a benefit to being anxious?

What is mindfulness and what does it have to do with anxiety?

Why your brain works against your anxiety reduction efforts

What anxiety behavior type are you?

Part 2 of Unwinding Anxiety: Second Gear

It’s not just the cake that feels good…

How to update your brain’s reward system

For this to work, you’ll want to be mindful of judgment

Shoulds are judgments in disguise

The juice is worth the squeeze – even after the fact

How to know if you’re making progress with second gear

Is your mindset “fixed?”

The physiology of mindset

 Delight and disgust: How they’re similar

An exercise to help you weaken cravings for unwanted (anxiety producing) behaviors

Part 3 of Unwinding Anxiety: What is third gear?

How to know when you’re ready for 3rd gear

An offer you can’t refuse

A spoonful of curiosity makes the anxiety go down

What does curiosity sound like?

Touching the (emotional) void

What’s in an emotion

Lean into it

Getting used to change

Echo loops

The “why” habit loop

Anxiety lives in your body

Final thoughts

Introduction: Unwinding Anxiety

Let’s face it, as human beings, we are all students of unwinding anxiety. You may not be aware that much of your behavior is subconsciously dedicated to just that. Whether or not you think you have an issue with anxiety, you’ll want to know how to handle it, because we all have anxiety at some point.

That’s why it’s wise to keep abreast of the latest anxiety research. Hence, this book review. 

I preordered the book on Amazon and it promptly arrived two days later. However, such prompt service might actually be making my anxiety worse. (Stay tuned for more on this.)

The subtitle on the cover reads: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind. When I first read this I had visions of charts, statistics, theories, doom and gloom, and memories of me falling asleep in class. However, as the mind tends to do, I was worrying for no reason, apparently having to do with the prefrontal cortex, as Dr. Brewer would later explain.

I am pleased to report that concerns about my comprehension of this book melted away from the very first sentence. In this introduction, Dr. Brewer introduces himself in a way that is both modest and highly relatable. 

Part 0 of Unwinding Anxiety: Understanding your mind

Part 0 is dedicated to understanding how anxiety works. Dr. Brewer tells the familiar (to me, at least) story of how he was suffering from anxiety in college and didn’t realize it – denying it, in fact. He talks about the challenge of identifying anxiety because it can show up in just about any form. That’s what makes unwinding anxiety difficult.

He goes on to describe the experiences of several of his family members who struggle with anxiety. Readers may find threads of their own struggles in these stories. And if you are not sure about whether or not you have anxiety, you might find answers here.

After a brief historical overview going back to the early days of the American republic, Dr. Brewer describes anxiety as something that has persisted throughout time. Citing various modern studies, he describes the propensity to worry as, among other things, a product of a wealthy and stable society. He describes anxiety as “going viral” – something that was happening even before the pandemic.   

Anxiety and fear: Is there a difference?

Later in Part 0, Dr. Brewer distinguishes anxiety from fear. The purpose of fear, he states, is learning to avoid dangerous situations. It’s a good thing, but anxiety develops when the thinking mind (the prefrontal cortex) goes on overdrive. Dr. Brewer explains the prefrontal cortex as predicting the future based on the past. However, there’s often a lack of information, or uncertainty (like with COVID). Thus, “what-if” thinking, also known as catastrophizing, is born.  

To reverse the perpetual “what-if” cycle, Dr. Brewer recommends developing an awareness that you’re becoming anxious and noticing what negative results are connected to it. He goes on to say that the brain learns via the pain-pleasure principle. When we recognize anxiety, pause, and ask ourselves if we’ve done everything in our power to address the situation (washing hands during COVID for example), we are rewarded with a moment of calm. This reward, through positive reinforcement, increases the chance that we’ll be successful at unwinding anxiety. 

I’m not an (anxiety) addict….Yes, you are 

Remember that recent clip on You tube where a lawyer appeared in court virtually with a cat filter on his face? When he couldn’t get the filter off, he infamously said, “I’m not a cat.” In the comments section, someone said “that sounds like something a cat would say.” 

And that’s the same point Dr. Brewer makes as he draws parallels between anxiety and addiction. If you deny a problem, you most likely have that problem. Upon introducing the idea of anxiety as an addiction, he immediately moves to quash your likely rebuttal, “I’m not an (anxiety) addict.” And that begs the question, what is addiction anyway?  

Dr. Brewer defines addiction as continuing to do something despite negative consequences. He certainly challenged me to think about anxiety in a new way, as I have not considered it a form of addiction. 

There are reasons why we’re more prone to addictions in modern life. Society is structured to provide convenience and ease (like me ordering this book on Amazon Prime.) As a capitalist society, there is an incentive for service providers to make their services enticing (i.e. addicting). If you’ve seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix recently, you know what Dr. Brewer is talking about. 

Is your anxiety loopy? Yes, but not in the way you might think

Towards the end of Part 0, Dr. Brewer presents the process unwinding anxiety as reverse engineering a habit loop. 

Starting the loop is stress or anxiety brought on by uncertainty. Next, a particular mental behavior (worry) is carried out for the purpose of finding a solution to the uncertain situation. In a perfect world, the final step of this cycle would be discovering the solution to the problem. However, most of the time a solution is not reached and the result is distraction. (checking social media or other idle behaviors) This leads to even more anxiety and even more desperation for unwinding anxiety.   

What is your brain trying to do when you worry?

I enjoyed this part of the book because Dr. Brewer talks about the positive purpose of worry, something most people don’t realize. 

Why is worry part of the addiction cycle? According to Dr. Brewer, worrying is just as likely to produce a solution as you are to win a jackpot by playing a slot machine. Even if you do “win” at some point, you’ll be pulling that lever for the rest of time, trying to get the same “high,” as you did the first time. With worry, it helped you feel better one time, now you’re hooked on it. 

Dr. Brewer concluded the chapter by citing two studies done by his lab. The first one was to discover if app-based mindfulness training could reduce anxiety and burnout in physicians. The result was a 57% reduction of anxiety in 3 months! Next, his lab did a study funded by NIH (National Institutes of Health) which produces a 64% reduction in patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

How the unwinding anxiety program came about

Putting together his unwinding anxiety program based on the way his patients of his overeating program changed successfully. Dr. Brewer came up with a 3-step process to overcome anxiety. He used an analogy of bicycle gears to make it easily understandable. Gear one is about mapping out one’s anxiety habit loops. Gear two is discovering how your brain’s reward system is structured. Finally, gear three is all about tapping into personal resources that will help you develop anti-anxiety habits.

Remember our list in the introduction?  Here it is again in case you forgot: mars, bicycles, addiction, Matt Damon, anxiety? Now, we have covered everything on the list. Hopefully that will remove some uncertainty so we can start shifting the gears to get closer to unwinding anxiety. 

Part 1 of Unwinding anxiety: First Gear

Part 1 opens by Dr. Brewer explaining how to map habit loops. Most anxiety habits, he explains, are out of awareness. It’s important to recognize our own habit loops (triggers, behaviors, result) before we can change them. 

He cautions that while it isn’t difficult to map habit loops it’s important to not try and change habits immediately. In order to change, we need to bring our intellectual knowledge into our life experience. In other words, we can’t just understand anxiety habits, we need to be aware when when experience them.

Dr. Brewer drives home this point when he reminds us that Daniel-San in The Karate Kid didn’t learn Karate with head knowledge, he learned by doing (wax on, wax off). I appreciated this reference in the book because I just finished watching the latest season of Cobra Kai, a Netflix adaptation of The Karate Kid story.

You’re reading an anxiety book review. Is this making you more anxious?

Dr. Brewer says that reading anxiety books is also a habit loop. Think about it, you read the latest anxiety book. Then you say to yourself I “know” that already. Then you might make a halfhearted attempt at unwinding anxiety. When it doesn’t “work,” you feel even more anxious. Then, you look for another book and start the cycle again. 

You can see this phenomenon in book reviews on Amazon. The negative reviews I’ve read typically complain that the information is not “new.” What these people are really saying, is that they never actually translated the concepts of the book into real-world awareness and action. So, I appreciate Dr. Brewer for making this vital point.

Why do habits exist and what’s the first step to changing them?

Habits automate everyday tasks. This allows you to focus on learning new things. Traditional behavioral change processes like willpower, substitution, and environmental control have limited application in unwinding anxiety, according to Dr. Brewer. 

The solution is a form of mindfulness training created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the premiere figure in the mindfulness movement. His method is called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The goal is to help you notice your habit loops in the moment.  

You want to unlearn old habits by first bringing them into the light of your awareness, rather that just doing them automatically. You do this by harnessing the state of curiosity. 

Being trumps doing

 Anxiety is often referred to as the result of avoidance behavior. Therefore, people with anxiety are advised to “do something” to distract themselves. However, “doing something” often means idle and distracting behavior. 

According to Dr. Brewer, a bias for action without the proper awareness of your own habits loops will just perpetuate the anxiety cycle.

The more you can be a curious observer regarding your own anxiety, the more you’ll learn about it and the better position you’ll be in to resolve it. 

Is there ever a benefit to being anxious?

Next Dr. Brewer talks about how behavior is learned. Simply put, behavior that is rewarding gets reinforced so it becomes a habit. Reducing anxiety it’s not just about behavioral change. You might inadvertently replace your behavior with another anxiety producing behavior.

This section reminded me about the classic medical joke “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” The doctor replies “don’t do that.” However, Dr. Brewer says that it’s not simple. 

When someone is trapped in an anxiety loop, they do certain behaviors that worked for unwinding anxiety in the past. Because it seemed to work, they kept doing it. Now, the behavior is nothing more than a link in the anxiety chain.

Anxiety itself might be part of a negative habit loop. For example, a lot of people believe that they need anxiety to perform well, to motivate themselves. Dr. Brewer reminds us that correlation does not equal causation. Just because you achieve success while being anxious doesn’t mean that it is the anxiety that causes your success. Someone who fully buys into “needing anxiety” to perform well would find unwinding anxiety more difficult.

The message is this: don’t wear anxiety, as he says, “like a badge of honor.” I believe that one can perform well even with anxiety. But, as Dr. Brewer says, that doesn’t mean anxiety is helping you perform well. In fact, it’s far more likely it’s hurting your performance. 

What is mindfulness and what does it have to do with anxiety?

Mindfulness is essentially focusing in the present moment without judgment. 

Dr. Brewer says that mindfulness can help make you more aware of what’s going on during your anxiety habit loops. He differentiates mindfulness from meditation by saying that meditation is more of an exercise you sit down and “do.” And mindfulness is more of a state of awareness that can be applied at any moment. 

Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind or getting rid of anxious thoughts. The goal of mindfulness is to change your relationship with the symptoms of anxiety, so that you’re not always fighting against it. 

Why your brain works against your anxiety reduction efforts

There are several reasons it’s hard to change habits. The first is the self-sustaining properties of negative emotional states. The more you are in a particular emotional state, the harder it is to break out of it. Essentially, the “default mode” of the brain makes it difficult to escape anxiety. The cycle can extend itself all the way to the identity level, so you start to identify with anxiety as being part of who you are. 

How often is your brain in “default mode?” Citing a 2010 Harvard study, Dr. Brewer says that it’s about 50% of the time. There are regions of the brain called the default mode network (DMN). This is the part of the brain that is active during worrying and anxiety states. It’s also active when you crave certain food or behaviors.

There is another region of the brain, a subset of the DMN, called the PCC (posterior cingulate cortex). This gets activated during preservative thinking – the repetitive kind of thinking you do when you worry. Fortunately, through a series of mindfulness studies, Dr. Brewer and his team showed that mindfulness can alleviate preservative thinking and get the mind off of autopilot.

What anxiety behavior type are you?

At the end of Part 1, Dr. Brewer gives a quiz to determine your mindfulness personality. There are 3 behavioral tendencies related to anxiety. 1) Approach/fight 2) avoid/flight 3) neither (freeze). I took the quiz, and realized that I was in the 3rd “bucket”, as he calls it. There are pros of this behavioral profile, such as being easy-going and being able to think deeply. However, there are also disadvantages such as being disorganized and dreamy. I’ll definitely confirm that I noticed these tendencies in myself. 

Dr. Brewer says that you want to keep your own tendencies in mind as you work through unwinding anxiety. It will help you understand yourself better as you make changes. Want to find out which “bucket” you fit into? Read the book, and take the quiz.

Part 2 of Unwinding Anxiety: Second Gear 

From this moment forward, we’ll talk about Dr. Brewer’s ideas on raising awareness of behavior. He uses food in many examples. Keep in mind that in terms of anxiety, he’s talking about the mental and physical behaviors that contribute to anxiety.

In part 2, Dr. Brewer discusses the brain’s reward system by posing a simple, but intriguing question: Why does your brain prefer cake to broccoli?

He reminds us that the more reward that is coupled with a behavior, the stronger a habit it becomes. With cake, there is a massive reward in terms of calories (satisfying), and sugar. 

Throughout the book, Dr. Brewer takes an evolutionary perspective on brain development. He frequently refers to old brain (survival brain) vs. new brain (thinking brain). 

It’s your survival brain that seeks high-calorie food. Back in the day, hunter-gathers were rewarded by their brains for finding high calorie foods because this helped make survival for certain. The sugar found in cake is also rewarding. Broccoli, on the other hand, isn’t calorie dense, nor sweet. Therefore, it’s less rewarding. 

It’s not just the cake that feels good…

The thing is, as Dr. Brewer states in Unwinding Anxiety, the perceived reward isn’t just about the cake. It’s also about context. People typically eat cake when there’s a celebration with friends and family. 

So, your old brain mixes all the feelings together: the fun times, excitement about being with friends and family, etc. It link all of that back with cake into what Dr. Brewer calls a “single composite reward value.” Your behavior is then driven by this automatic internal reward system. 

How to update your brain’s reward system

Second gear of Dr. Brewer’s program is all about updating this reward system to be more accurate. Remember, just like cake doesn’t really help you feel better, worrying doesn’t help you solve problems. According to Dr. Brewer, you want to realize in the present moment that your behavior doesn’t help you feel better.

When you’re present and aware, you’re no longer that 5-year-old kid at the birthday party eating cake for the first time. You’re a rational adult experiencing their behavior in the moment, realizing the truth about how rewarding it really is (not very rewarding). This kind of awareness will start to get your brain less excited about the cake. 

Dr. Brewer recommends that while you’re observing yourself, you ask this question: What do I get from this? He says this is not a thinking exercise. It’s paying attention to the actual benefit you’re receiving. When you see that the behavior isn’t really as rewarding as you thought, your brain starts to update it’s value system. 

For this to work, you’ll want to be mindful of judgment

As Dr. Brewer says, if you judge, you will not see the truth about your behavior. You’ll never see the reward for what it really is because judgment distorts it. The importance of being nonjudgmental cannot be stressed enough. You want to become an observer of yourself – very much like a scientist studying your own behavior. 

Shoulds are judgments in disguise

One way people judge without realizing it is to tell themselves they shouldn’t be thinking or feeling a certain way. He refers to an old joke which says don’t should all over yourself. The point is, the word should is a judgment and only puts more pressure on yourself. 

The juice is worth the squeeze – even after the fact

Remember, there’s a 50% chance you won’t be present (at least at first) when you’re engaged in anxiety behavior. Fortunately, you can use second gear retroactively. To change the brain’s reward system, you want to recall the “embodied felt experience” of the result of your behavior. In most cases, you can probably recall what you were going through at the time the behavior was “running.” Dr. Brewer calls this the “juice.” As long as there’s enough juice left, you can learn from the experience. So, you can remember your behavior from when you were anxious and recall how rewarding it was or wasn’t. 

Of course, Dr. Brewer also says that once the juice has dried up, then it’s just an intellectual exercise. For example, if I try to recall feeling anxious a week ago, there’s probably not enough juice left to learn from it. I would just be thinking about it instead of actually updating my brain’s reward system. 

How to know if you’re making progress with unwinding anxiety in second gear

According to Dr. Brewer, when you are still doing the behavior you want to change, but you’re learning from the experience, that’s a sign you’re making progress. He gives the example of someone who is still worrying, but recognizing that it’s not getting them anywhere. They’re not upset with themselves, they’re just noticing that the behavior (worrying) isn’t particularly rewarding. Also, when you feel positive about learning from your behavior, even if you’re still doing that behavior, Dr. Brewer says that’s another sign of progress. 

Soon, you’ll be able to put the brakes on anxiety, or at least slow it down when it happens – just by noticing that your worrying and self-criticisms aren’t helping. When this happens, you’re well on your way to unwinding anxiety. 

Is your mindset “fixed”?

My dad used to say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But, that’s not what Dr. Brewer is referring to. He’s talking about a fixed mindset, as opposed to a growth mindset. This is based on research by Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford. If you have a fixed mindset, you see failure as a condemnation of yourself and your abilities. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is the idea that failure is simply an opportunity to learn. 

According to Dr. Brewer, your mind is only open to learning when you’re in a growth mindset. How do you know if you’re in a fixed mindset? One way is when you criticize, judge, or put yourself down. Fortunately, you can realize that failure doesn’t mean anything about you. And Dr. Brewer’s new look at failure from an existential standpoint will challenge you to look at anxiety through the lens of a growth mindset.  

The physiology of mindset

Speaking of mindset, Dr. Brewer reminds us that mindset shows up in physiology. He uses the example of being attacked by a tiger. If that happened, you would curl up into a defensive position. The same physiology happens when you attack yourself with criticisms and judgments. Sure, it may not be as pronounced as when you’re being physically attacked, but it’s the same tightening and shrinking – the kind of behavior that makes unwinding anxiety difficult.

Essentially, Dr. Brewer says that you want to be your own teacher and encourage yourself while you learn and change. 

Delight and disgust: How they’re similar

Apparently, it’s the same region of the brain that is active when you have a craving and when you’re disgusted with something. When you’re going on automatic, you won’t notice the transition between the two. But, when you’re mindful, you can notice how you’ll gradually get disgusted with continued behavior that isn’t rewarding. When your brain gets disgusted with a behavior, it will stop doing it.

Dr. Brewer gives the example of spoiled milk. You reach for that carton of milk because you expect it to be rewarding. When the actual reward doesn’t match the expected reward, you get disgusted, and your brain shuts down the behavior. 

Now, that’s an extreme example. However, there’s always a point where a behavior stops being rewarding. If you’re not mindful, you won’t notice the subtle point where the behavior stops being rewarding. This is why, according to Dr. Brewer, people continue to eat even when they’re full. The point of becoming full goes unnoticed. 

An exercise to help you weaken cravings for unwanted (anxiety producing) behaviors

Dr. Brewer ends part 2 by describing how his app-based mindfulness training helps people stop unwanted behaviors. The process works something like this: when you have a craving to do an unwanted behavior, like numb anxiety with food, you’ll rate the strength of the craving on a scale of 1 to 10. Do a brief mental rehearsal, observing yourself doing the behavior and noticing how rewarding it is. Rate the strength of your craving again. Then do the behavior (mindfully) noticing how its appeal diminishes.  

Part 3 of Unwinding Anxiety: What is Third gear?

So, if you’re still reading, you know that first gear is about awareness or “watching” yourself go through the anxiety cycle. Second gear is about becoming aware of the actual reward of the anxiety behavior, or lack thereof. Now, third gear is all about finding a more rewarding behavior to replace the old anxiety behavior. This is done by bringing curiosity into the mix. Dr. Brewer has several creative ways to do this. Before we get into that, let’s talk about when you’re ready for 3rd gear. 

How to know when you’re ready for Third gear

According to Dr. Brewer, you’re ready for 3rd gear when you’re really feeling a sense of “disenchantment” with your current physical and mental behavior that is part of your anxiety cycle. This only happens when you genuinely have a “disenchanted” response to your behavior. As he cautions us throughout the book, this is not a thinking exercise, it’s a felt experience in the moment. 

An offer you can’t refuse

Third gear has to do with finding a more rewarding behavior to replace the ones that cause anxiety. However, the new behavior has to meet a couple of requirements in order to be effective. First, you want it to be more rewarding than the previous behavior. Dr. Brewer calls this a BBO, which stands for bigger, better offer. Second, it must not reinforce the old habit loop. Remember, many attempts at unwinding anxiety actually cause more of it. 

In terms of finding this new behavior, Dr. Brewer says that mindfulness is often the answer. That’s because mindfulness is an “open state,” associated with open, relaxed physiology and learning. Whereas anxiety is a closed state, associated with defensive physiology, fixed mindset, etc. According to studies done in Dr. Brewer’s lab, open states are preferred by just about everyone. In other words, the state of mindfulness is in and of itself a more rewarding state than anxiety. 

A spoonful of curiosity makes the anxiety go down

Central to third gear is curiosity. You may recall that curiosity is the optimum state from which to learn new behaviors. Dr. Brewer discusses the science of curiosity at length. He mentions two types of curiosity: deprivation curiosity and interest. 

Deprivation curiosity happens when you are trying to think of something and it’s just not coming. It’s a state of effort and, well, deprivation. This is not the state you want when you’re going for unwinding anxiety. It will just make you more anxious. After all, deprivation curiosity is a closed state, just like anxiety. 

Interest curiosity is when you’re genuinely interested in something and you want to know more. Like when I was five years old riding in my grandmother’s car. I opened the glove box and saw a red button. “Grandma, what does this button do?” I asked as I pressed the button. Apparently that was the trunk release button and there wasn’t a safety feature back then that kept the trunk closed while the vehicle was in motion. So the trunk opens while we’re going down main street. That’s curiosity – interest curiosity. That’s what you want when you’re anxious. 

What does curiosity sound like?

Interest curiosity is  an open state which is rewarding by itself. Dr. Brewer describes curiosity as a “superpower” that we all have. Essentially, curiosity is a more powerful, more rewarding state than anxiety. Dr. Brewer gives several creative ways of entering the state of curiosity. First, he says that making the sound that most people make (“hmmm…”) when they’re curious will help you activate curiosity. Try it, it works. 

Dr. Brewer recommends using “hmm…” as a mantra anytime you experience discomfort. Use this only after you have been successful with first and second gears. Sometimes, curiosity can alleviate anxiety entirely. Other times, curiosity is the learning tool that helps you discover behavioral alternatives that help you feel better.  

Touching the (emotional) void 

A good section of part 3 is devoted to troubleshooting, which I think is a great idea. 

Dr. Brewer reminds us that when we feel negative emotions, the brain creates an “action bias” to try to resolve the situation. Compelled to do something, we engage in an idle behavior which might provide temporary relief, but usually makes us feel worse. 

Dr. Brewers says that there are going to be days where anxiety just happens. He calls those rainy days. To deal with them, he recommends an acronym called RAIN.

  • recognize/relax
  • accept/allow 
  • Investigate – sensations
  • Note – ”what’s happening moment to moment”

What’s in an emotion?

Dr. Brewer says that it’s important to recognize that negative emotional states are composed of layered thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. You can take a step back and become an observer. You can bring curiosity into the experience. As you do, you’ll either look deeper into the feelings and learn more about them, or they will naturally begin to resolve themselves. 

Lean into it

Dr. Brewer recommends “leaning into” discomfort instead of trying to get away from it. This makes sense to me, as a lot of anxiety is created by trying to escape it. Your ally in leaning in is curiosity and breathing. Dr. Brewer says that asking yourself the question “How do I know I’m breathing?…hmm” can bring awareness into the (likely) altered breathing pattern behind anxious states. Paying attention to your breathing in this way helps bring reboot your prefrontal cortex (the reasoning part of your brain). As you get curious about your emotional state and focus on your breathing, Dr. Brewer says that you may notice the uncomfortable feelings going out with your breath.

Getting used to change

When people begin to overcome anxiety, they are often anxious about NOT being anxious. According to Dr. Brewer, this happens because you’re not yet used to being calm and relaxed. It’s outside your comfort zone. That’s OK, lean into it. Keep using first, second, and third gears.

Echo loops

Echo loops happen when you do something for the purpose of unwinding anxiety. However, when it doesn’t work you become frustrated, and maybe even beat yourself up. Your attempts to get better have been swallowed up by the original anxiety loop. The loop goes like this: you feel guilty about doing the old behavior. This leads to doing the behavior again, which gives you a brief relief, until you start to feel even more guilty. 

This is a secondary loop that can reinforce the original one.

Dr. Brewer says it’s good to keep in mind that unwinding anxiety is not about fixing, it’s about changing your state of being. He recommends treating frustration with what he calls “loving kindness” towards yourself. 

Most people are better at giving kindness to others than they are themselves. So, Dr. Brewer includes a creative exercise where he helps you “transfer” the feelings you would have for a close friend to yourself. Then, when you feel frustrated, you give yourself a good dose of kindness, and it helps you remember to keep practicing. 

I think this will be a helpful exercise for a lot of people. Those who struggle with anxiety often hold themselves to perfectionistic standards (aka impossible). Overcoming anxiety will be largely a function of giving yourself more latitude. In Dr. Brewer’s words “kindness trumps meanness.” 

The “Why?” habit loop

In addition to the cycles of frustration and self-punishment (echo loops) that run parallel to the main anxiety loop, Dr. Brewer mentions the “Why?” habit loop. This is when anxiety hits and you try to figure out why you’re feeling anxious. This is a loop in and of itself, and only contributes to anxiety. I think echo loops are important regardless of what problem you’re working with. It’s something that many other anxiety books overlook. Dr. Brewer recommends you use the mantra “why doesn’t matter” and get on with using the gears. 

Anxiety lives in your body

If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, you’ll recognize it as having mental and physical symptoms. Late in Part 3, Dr. Brewer talks about something called somatic memory formation, where certain emotional states become linked to certain aspects of physiology so that are inseparable. For example, when you’re anxious, you might tense up and close your body off. You want to have an open state, which is the expansion and openness of your physiology. 

One way to do this is to open your eyes wide. When you take notice of the way you’re holding your body, get curious (“hmm…”) and open your eyes wide it signals to your brain that you’re ready to take in more information. It enhances the state of curiosity and helps lead you back to an open state.

Final thoughts

If you’re still with me, you’re definitely serious about unwinding anxiety. I also think you would benefit greatly from reading Dr. Brewer’s book. I consider myself to be well-versed in anxiety from both personal and professional experience. Yet, I still learned a lot from this book.

Not only is it a fascinating book from a scientific perspective, it will really change the way you think about anxiety. 

Dr. Brewer advises readers to consider any moment of your day as a chance to practice mindfulness. You may want to start with formal meditation practice and then slowly extend mindfulness into your day, practicing in brief windows of time. Practice moving through the gears by being aware of how you respond mentally and physically to any anxious situation (gear 1), ask yourself “what I am I getting from this?” as you go through the anxiety loop. (gear 2) Bring curiosity into the mix with “hmm…” (gear 3), and this open state will either help you relax or find another way to refocus. If you get stuck, downshift. And don’t try to shift the gears too quickly.

If you follow the techniques to the letter, and give yourself plenty of time, Unwinding Anxiety may just be the last anxiety book you’ll ever need to read. With practice you’ll achieve what Dr. Brewer calls “anxiety sobriety” one calm moment at a time. 

Although this is a long review, I’ve really just scratched the surface of Dr. Brewer’s book. Please click here to order your own copy, please note I get a small referral fee from Amazon if you buy this book through the link. However, I only recommend books I have read and believe are valuable.