Judson Brewer: "You can't get out of anxiety in a rational way, our thinking brain shuts down"


"Anxiety is everywhere. It always has been. However, in recent years it has taken over our lives like never before." Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has spent more than 20 years studying how the brain and mechanisms that lead us into the anxiety loop, whereby the more we worry, the more anxiety we suffer and the more anxiety we suffer, the more we worry, which ends up becoming a habit, he explains. But anxiety on its own, Brewer illustrates, is not necessarily negative: "We all feel anxiety. It makes us human. The problem is how long it lasts and how often you suffer it."

But this expert has good news: you can break out of the loop. His recipe: introspection, curiosity and understanding how anxiety is generated to break what, he considers, ends up becoming a habit. One that, like all habits, can be changed. Of all this, reflected in his latest book, Undo the anxiety (Paidós), written as a practical manual to apply at home, Brewer speaks with elDiario.es via videoconference.

Brewer believes that the only good thing that the pandemic has left is that it has placed mental health at the center of public debate. "It's positive. A lot of studies show that anxiety spiked early in the pandemic and has stayed pretty high for the last two years," she explains. And that is why it is important that it is talked about and that prominent personalities address it without complexes. "We see athletes like Simon Biles or Naomi Osaka talk about anxietyto the English royal family... And that puts people to talk about this, "he values.

The doctor explains that the origin of anxiety is somewhat paradoxical. "Science says that we have two very useful survival mechanisms. One is fear, that in the face of, for example, an unknown noise can make me go closer to investigate it or run away. The other is thinking and planning: taking past experiences, projecting them towards the future and plan. But when the two come together all hell breaks loose. When we are afraid of the future, anxiety sets in and we can't think or plan. So it seems that putting together two very useful survival mechanisms doesn't lead to creating another mechanism yet more useful, but one of anti-survival, because anxiety is not healthy, neither mentally nor physically".

Fixed the framework, what can be done to combat it? First of all, know what you have. Because many people are not even aware. "Many people who have read the book have told me afterwards, 'I didn't know I was so anxious.' look at your own behavioral loops – how many times do we procrastinate or go online or worry about something – you can look back, trace how they are generated and ask yourself: why am I doing this? anxiety, and it helps us identify what triggered that behavior.

And from there, get to know each other and change dynamics, because you cannot convince yourself to get out of there, no matter how aware you are of your situation and how it is generated. "You can't rationalize a way out of anxiety. Our thinking brain shuts down when we're feeling anxious, so it's pretty hard to get out of," he explains.

What can be done personally, then? "One thing that works very well for me and my patients is to understand that anxiety can be modified, like any other habit, and understand how the process works. When we understand how the mind works, we can work with it. I've written the book as a three-stage process: first, to help people identify how anxiety can create worry habit loops; second, to help people understand how the reward system works in our brains and unrewarding it is to worry; and thirdly, to find a better alternative than worry, but that is not just distracting us from that worry, because that only distracts us, but something that takes us out of that loop, "he reels.

That many is simply being aware. "That's the irony," explains Brewer. "Awareness itself may be that better alternative. Let me explain: you are worried, you get anxious and you worry about anxiety. We can compare how we feel at that moment with the curiosity that causes us to think about the physical sensations that it generates in us." And when that intrigue kicks in, that awareness helps us get out of the worry loop and feel better. Between worry and intrigue, our brain definitely prefers intrigue, so naturally we'll start moving in that direction. to establish curiosity as the new habit.

It still seems a bit obvious, but Brewer points out that when you're in there it can be hard to see and understand. "Imagine that you hear a noise in the next room. You go in and it's dark, you don't know what's going on. But curiosity makes you turn on the light and see. That's the first step, understanding how the brain works in order to work with it ", Explain.

This, personally. What do you think about therapy? Do you think it's for everyone? "My honest answer," explains this therapist, "is no. Some people find it useful, but it also depends on how good the therapist is. I do think it's good for everyone to understand how the brain works, which is why I have written the book instead of just recommending therapy.

Brewer is concerned about the high incidence of anxiety ("there is more than ever"), which he considers a "global problem". "An example is the internet. There is a phenomenon called social contagion. You look at networks, where anyone can connect with anyone, and on networks there is a lot of anger and anxiety. And the more anxious people are, the more anxious comments are posted that can affect everyone. others," he warns.

Finally, an unanswered question. Why – this is recorded in the book – the more advanced a society is, the more anxiety it suffers? "There is a lot of speculation with this and I don't think anyone really knows. From what I've read, my answer would be we have time [libre] to worry about When you don't have time to worry, you don't worry," she speculates.



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