Unwinding Anxiety

New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind

By Judson Brewer
Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer book cover
Find it on Bookshop


Judson Brewer, a practicing psychiatrist and researcher, shares some of the best ways you can change your mindset towards anxiety. I’ve summarized them here so you can get the gist and start unwinding anxiety in your own life. While much of this book was fluff (self promotion, repetition, stories from patients and clients of the author), there are some very useful tips hidden inside.

The basis of the strategies given here is that anxiety thrives on bad habits. In fact, anxiety itself can become a habit if you let yourself get comfortable in it.

Breaking Habit Loops

Pulling out a smartphone and checking a news feed or answering a few emails might give some brief anxiety relief, but this just creates a new habit, which is that when you’re stressed or anxious, you distract yourself.

Map Your Habit Loops

The first step to managing your anxiety is to map out your habit loops using mindfulness. A habit loop consists of a trigger, an action, and a reward. Here is an example: you check your email to find your boss has requested a large task from you, so you open social media to avoid dealing with the email, and you are rewarded with cute cat videos. Procrastination is a common habit loop, often occurring because of a subconscious fear of failure. Or maybe you eat ice cream because your crush hasn’t texted you back. I found this tactic useful from both directions: pay attention to what you do after you feel anxious, and trace back from your bad habits to find what triggers them.

Your “Rewards” Are Not Good For You

Second, train your brain, again with mindfulness, to recognize that your “rewards” are not good for you. Those cat videos are a waste of time, and do not help you accomplish the task your boss requested. The ice cream is going to make your stomach hurt and won’t make your crush pick up the phone. Any relief you feel is going to be temporary. The suggested strategy for accomplishing this is to binge on these things until you are sick of them. I see the point here, but what if I want to enjoy my ice cream after dinner when it’s not linked to a habit loop? I would suggest a less extreme version, where you track how much time you are wasting, or how many calories you are ingesting.

Break the Loop

Finally, find a better offer for your brain. This is not merely replacing a bad reward with a better one— it means breaking the loop altogether. Be mindful of when your anxiety triggers and why your body is responding that way. Recognize the emotions that come, and watch them as they go. Rise above your primitive brain using the power of curiosity. Step out of your comfort zone, and use that discomfort not as a source of fear but as an opportunity for growth. Changing your attitude towards negative feelings releases their power over you.

When you are curious about something, it effortlessly pulls you in because it in itself feels good and rewarding. The more curious and open to your experiences you are, the greater your reserves of energy to explore.

Take-Home Message

  1. Map your habit loops
  2. Rethink your rewards
  3. Find a better offer

Each of these steps is just as important as the next. You need them all to move forward and work through your anxiety.

I wouldn’t say my life has changed after reading this book, but it has definitely helped me to break some bad habits. It has helped me recognize my triggers and stop anxiety from dominating my brain (most of the time).

Want to read more? Find Unwinding Anxiety here: Bookshop

The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂

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The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin