Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD

I love the idea of habits but it had never occurred to me that my anxious thought patterns could become habitual. After reading Unwinding Anxiety I am excited to try the many different path to unwinding my own worries.


A step-by-step plan clinically proven to break the cycle of worry and fear that drives anxiety and addictive habits

We are living through one of the most anxious periods any of us can remember. Whether facing issues as public as a pandemic or as personal as having kids at home and fighting the urge to reach for the wine bottle every night, we are feeling overwhelmed and out of control. But in this timely book, Judson Brewer explains how to uproot anxiety at its source using brain-based techniques and small hacks accessible to anyone.

We think of anxiety as everything from mild unease to full-blown panic. But it’s also what drives the addictive behaviors and bad habits we use to cope (e.g. stress eating, procrastination, doom scrolling and social media). Plus, anxiety lives in a part of the brain that resists rational thought. So we get stuck in anxiety habit loops that we can’t think our way out of or use willpower to overcome. Dr. Brewer teaches us map our brains to discover our triggers, defuse them with the simple but powerful practice of curiosity, and to train our brains using mindfulness and other practices that his lab has proven can work.

Distilling more than 20 years of research and hands-on work with thousands of patients, including Olympic athletes and coaches, and leaders in government and business, Dr. Brewer has created a clear, solution-oriented program that anyone can use to feel better – no matter how anxious they feel. from Goodreads.

A light blue cover with a shaded head containing a tangled string


Oh, I love habits. The notion that you can create a habit, or better yet, a habit loop that will keep you rolling along on this journey through life with less effort and more reward is amazing to me. I as hooked after reading Atomic Habits by James Clear and went back to discover the basis of the science of habit in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhig. Honestly though, it never occurred to me that I could have formed a habit loop out of worrying or that my brain is hard wired to do so until reading Unwinding Anxiety.

I do not have diagnosed anxiety. Hence why I refer to my thoughts as “worries.” I know people who have anxiety disorders and I do not want to diminish, at all, what that means. Perhaps if I could see someone professionally I would be diagnosed but when I have tried to get mental health care in the past the wait list was so long. Once, I was told that I could circumvent the 9+ month wait list if I would just identify that I was suicidal and submit to a forced hospitalization. This was for out-of-pocket treatment that would not be covered by my insurance company. Such is mental health treatment in America.

I do know that I worry though. And, sometimes I worry about things that I know I really don’t need to worry about. It doesn’t stop me from doing things (I don’t think) but it does keep me from enjoying myself sometimes. Probably the biggest bi-product of my worrying is my insomnia. And, while I have set up a series of habit loops to support good sleep and am nearly 100% effective, I would love to not worry about being up all night. This is where I was when I started reading Unwinding Anxiety.

After reading one too many books by journalists that pretended to be scientists (I’m looking at you Malcolm Gladwell) I was overjoyed to find that this book is written by an M.D. PhD about an issue that he has studied for years. This may not be a peer review JAMA article, but I felt confident that whether I agreed or not with the author, his writing was based on science

Dr. Brewer’s explanation, that anxiety is a habit loop, makes perfect sense to me. I lived in Minneapolis right near the bridge that collapsed. I went over it nearly everyday and, right before it collapsed, there were construction crews working on it (to my recollection). Because of this, I associate any bridge under even the smallest of construction as “dangerous.” I duck when driving under them and hold my breath when driving on one. You know, because those two things will keep me save. (Bridge collapses – woman saved by ducking!)

My brain has now decided that the elevated train lines, currently being updated in Chicago after decades of neglect, are dangerous because they are under construction. Logical? No. Brewer argues that this is a habit loop my brain made for me that is just as innocent as the popcorn during a movie. I have linked the two and it has made riding the trains…uncomfortable. Especially the Sunday trains which are notorious for doing whatever speed they want.

The book suggests that I go through three gears to break the cycle. First gear is Mapping Your Mind. Second Gear is Updating Your Brain’s Reward Value. Finally, third gear is Finding that Bigger Better Offer for Your Brain.

I won’t regurgitate the whole book for you but let me tell you that I found this to be an amazing tool in stopping the habit loops that stressed me out with unnecessary worrying. I was especially pleased that the author tackles why willpower alone is not enough. I’m not weak damnit! My brain is designed to keep me alive and, absent a clear and present danger, it will just substitute some theoretical danger. I started working on my worry while riding the trains and it is getting better. Slowly, but surely!

This book will not magically fix my worrying any more than reading Atomic Habits made me work out. I will need to put the steps into practice. And I plan to do so. If you have anxiety or worry habits that you would like to take apart, I really do recommend this book. It was a smart but approachable text that laid out for my the “why” anxiety happens and the “how” to take it apart.

Tell me, please. How do you deal with your anxiety / worries?


9 thoughts on “Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD

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  1. This is a very reassuring review – there are so many books out there and so many are just based on one sentence when you pin it down, and one that’s no good! I’ve found Overcoming Anxiety by Helen Kennerley very useful, too. I do suffer from diagnosed anxiety and I appreciate your careful delineation of your own lack of diagnosis, although it seems clear you would have one but for the system you’re in healthcare wise.


  2. Thank you for this review! So many things to worry about right now… I need a new mindset and this might help a lot. Thankful for the review- I have seen this book pop up a lot in lists but wasn’t sure. Going to add it to my list. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, thank you for stopping by and commenting! The book was an accessible read that I think will really help me. I’ve been using it during my public transportation crisis and it is getting better! I hope it helps.


  3. This is really interesting. My anxiety was rediagnosed as OCD last year, and between that and reading Atomic Habits I’m beginning to really understand what habits are and wheee those loops are happening in my mind. This review is super helpful – looks like I need to pick this one up soon!

    Liked by 1 person

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