Overcoming anxiety and breaking destructive habits | Judson Brewer, PhD, Md

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When we discuss health, we typically hone in on the tangible: diet, exercise, sleep. Yet, in doing so, we often overlook a pivotal aspect: mental wellbeing. In Episode #285, I sit down with psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr Judson Brewer to look inward at anxiety, destructive habits, and how to build new habits.

“If you don’t know how your mind works, you can’t work with it.”

Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, is a renowned neuroscientist and psychiatrist, specialising in habit change and self-mastery. With over 25 years of blending mindfulness training with scientific research, he stands as an authority in the field, holding esteemed positions at Brown University in both Behavioural and Social Sciences and Psychiatry. With his talks, notably the fourth most-viewed TED talk in 2016, and acclaimed books such as “The Craving Mind” and “Unwinding Anxiety”, Dr Jud’s insights into the mind and habits have garnered global attention. Alongside many other notable achievements, Dr Jud is exceptionally well-positioned to speak on today’s topic.

“Anxiety can actually be driven like a habit. By that I mean the feeling of worrying can drive a mental behaviour of worrying.”

This episode offers insights into meditation and mindfulness, presenting them as “a mental workout.” We break down the processes behind habit formation and deconstruction, shedding light on concepts such as the default mode network and the techniques to rewire the survival brain. This conversation emphasises the focus on anxiety and highlights that willpower alone isn’t necessarily the solution.

Specifically, we discuss:

  • Intro (00:00)
  • Judson Brewer’s Personal Journey: From Novice to Mindfulness Expert (02:27)
  • Defining Mindfulness: How It Relates to and Enhances Meditation Practices (09:51)
  • The Impact of Mindfulness on Brain Function and Habit Transformation (14:45)
  • The Challenge of Awareness in Today’s Distracted World (20:29)
  • Unravelling Anxiety: Insights into Reward-Based Learning (23:28)
  • Distinguishing Anxiety from Depression: A Mindful Approach (33:03)
  • Exploring the Human Brain: The Old Versus the New (41:12)
  • How Can We Change Habits? (45:31)
  • How Can You Cultivate Awareness? (56:51)
  • Judson Brewer’s Strategy for Managing Anxiety (1:05:17)
  • Effective Techniques for Breaking Unhealthy Habits (1:06:09)
  • Willpower’s Role in Overcoming Negative Behaviours (1:10:48)
  • Replacing Bad Habits with Good (1:16:05)
  • Addressing Anxiety’s Root Causes Through Habit Change (1:18:28)
  • Outro (1:22:12)

I learned a lot from this episode, and I’m confident it will resonate with you. A heartfelt thanks to Dr Jud for sharing his expertise. Mental health, though critical, remains an under-addressed and often misunderstood domain. I hope this dialogue aids in reshaping your perceptions of habits and anxiety.

Head to Dr Jud’s website, https://drjud.com/, to find his books, apps, and free resources. You can also connect with him and learn more on Instagram, YouTube, Threads, and Twitter/X.

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More about Jud Brewer, MD, PhD

Jud Brewer MD PhD (“Dr. Jud”) is a New York Times best-selling author and thought leader in the field of habit change and the “science of self-mastery”, having combined over 25 years of experience with mindfulness training with his scientific research therein. He is the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center and professor in Behavioral and Social Sciences and Psychiatry at the Schools of Public Health & Medicine at Brown University. A psychiatrist and internationally known expert in mindfulness training for addictions, Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for habit change, including both in-person and app-based treatments for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety. He has also studied the underlying neural mechanisms of mindfulness using standard and real-time fMRI and EEG neurofeedback. He has trained US Olympic athletes and coaches, foreign government ministers, and his work has been featured on 60 Minutes, TED (4th most viewed talk of 2016, with 19+ Million views), the New York Times, Time magazine (top 100 new health discoveries of 2013), Forbes, BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera (documentary about his research), Businessweek and others. His work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, American Heart Association, among others. Dr. Brewer founded MindSciences (which merged with Sharecare Inc. in 2020) to move his discoveries of clinical evidence behind mindfulness for anxiety, eating, smoking and other behavior change into the hands of consumers (see www.drjud.com for more information). He is the author of The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love, why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits* (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), the New York Times best-seller, Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind (Avery/Penguin Random House, 2021) and the forthcoming book The Hunger Habit: why we eat when we’re not hungry and how to stop (Avery/Penguin Random House, 2024).

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