Overcoming Anxiety, Undoing Harmful Habits

As the month of November began, with a contentious election and a continuing pandemic, the time was right for Middlesex to hold Wellness Week, emphasizing the importance of attending to physical and mental health. The program began on November 2 with a Zoom presentation by Dr. Jud Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist specializing in anxiety and habit change. As the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and an associate professor in psychiatry at the Warren Alpert Medical School, Dr. Brewer described the underlying behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms of anxiety and habit formation – and explained how to disrupt these processes, lessening their adverse effects.

Seeing how stress affected his own health in college initially led to Dr. Brewer’s interest in the mind-body connection. In medical school, he began studying how stress compromises the immune system, and he eventually became a regular practitioner of mindfulness. Anxiety, he learned, shuts down the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, which is the center of concentration and planning. With these logical abilities hampered, anxiety can fill the void with stories of fear and dread, leading to full-blown panic in some cases.

Yet, if people can recognize when they are getting anxious – and ask themselves if that feeling is really helping them – they can break the cycle of worry. “Understanding these mechanisms helps keep us calm when we face uncertainty,” Dr. Brewer affirmed. If his patients can attend to their “habit loops” – noticing what triggers their anxiety and what negative feelings or behaviors soon follow – they can pause, reflect on that, and then intentionally replace their old behaviors with new, more rewarding ones. Given that the mind will choose a “bigger, better offer,” the harmful habit loop can therefore be changed.

For the remainder of the week, students may choose from an assortment of healthful activities, including participating in mindfulness or yoga sessions; walking in the woods or going fishing; getting a cardiac screening test or donating blood; and relaxing with Barn Babies or campus pets. Amid so many options, students might find new ways to manage stress and maintain their physical and mental well-being.