I don’t normally think of myself as anxious. I tend to see the bright side of most things and utilize lots of techniques I’ve picked up over the years to handle stress. But truth be told, every now and then something will happen, and I find my mind spinning out of control. Certain triggers will spark, and I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a crazy loop spinning like a monkey in my head. How about you? Fortunately this week I listened to an online lecture explaining how our minds work in relationship to habit, addiction and obsession. During that talk I learned about the biological process our minds typically use. Even better I discovered a fairly simple way to reduce any thoughts of worry, fear, anxiety or attachment—including those crazy monkey thoughts in the middle of the night. So, if you prefer a good night’s sleep, or are interested in letting go of any fears or stress that might plague you during the day, you might find it helpful as well.
This relatively new approach comes from neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist Judson Brewer, PhD. His research and newly published book The Craving Mind explores why and how people become addicted to substances and behaviors that are counterproductive to living a happy and healthy life. Using his over 20-year background and research at Yale, MIT and Brown University, combined with his mindfulness training, he has developed a technique that gets to the root of our obsessions—and from there can reduce, change or even eliminate them all together. And even though the majority of us might not find our attachments to be problematic, I doubt there are any of us that are completely free of repetitive negative thoughts or behaviors that work against us.
Brewer defines addiction as doing something over and over “despite adverse outcomes.” That could be as simple as a stress related thought in the middle of the night that won’t let me get back to sleep—to something as destructive as alcoholism, binge eating or compulsive gambling. Even blindly eating that slice of chocolate cake or handful of potato chips to mask our uncomfortable feelings, qualifies. What about buying a new pair of shoes (or two) when our credit cards are already maxed out just to make ourselves feel better? Or how about when we spend 20-60 minutes on Facebook distracting ourselves when we have a pile of work that demanding our attention? It’s fairly clear that even when we know better, we don’t always do better. Why is that?
According to Brewer our minds are biologically set up to learn and then habitually repeat actions/behaviors that we/it believe are beneficial or rewarding. Think about it. If you are feeling thirsty and a bit lethargic you probably need some water. If you locate a glass of water and drink it you will respond to that water as a reward. Your mind and your body will tell you that it is good to drink water because it not only keeps you alive, it feels good too. That’s something you want (need) to do over and over again.
But in today’s world, where so much is easy and accessible, our brains and our biology use that simple 1) cue, 2) behavior 3) reward against us. Now if we think of ourselves as thirsty (cue) we can just as easily grab a soda (behavior) and that often leads to getting high from the sugar and caffeine (reward). Do that a couple of times and we have developed the habit to drink a soda any time we are feeling thirsty or a bit lethargic. Sure, one soda now and then might not be a problem. But if you start binge drinking sodas (wine, shots of tequila, etc.) every day, that can lead to all sorts of physical and psychological problems. Can you see how this can happen with all sorts of habits—including stress, worry or compulsive anything?
So what can we do about it? Brewer teaches that two common addiction treatments are to either avoid the cues or triggers altogether, or to substitute the behavior for something more helpful. That actually worked for me when I quit smoking over 35 years ago. Instead of getting up and having a cigarette in the morning, I would take a walk with the dog. If I wanted to watch my weight I just stopped buying those RC Colas and kept the house free of those triggers. Unfortunately these options don’t work for everyone. Brewer says that the standard stop smoking treatment promoted by the American Cancer Society is only 5% effective after 30 days. So what is a better option?
According to Brewer the best approach just might be to become mindful. Now I’ve written about mindfulness several times before, so I won’t repeat some of that here. But what Brewer emphasizes is that we use mindfulness to become more aware of the real motivations behind our behaviors and of the reward (s) we believe we are getting. He also quotes author and teach Jon Kabat-Zinn who explains that mindfulness is, “Paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally.” “Okay,” you might be thinking, “how does that help me to quit smoking, or over eating, or over-stressing in the middle of the night?”
Interesting enough, at least to me, was that Brewer backs up his mindfulness claims with research and practical testing that demonstrate how his version of mindfulness works.
First off, he says his goal isn’t about eliminating unhelpful behaviors. Instead he wants us to change our relationship to the thoughts and feelings behind the behaviors. In other words, if we get mindful about the root cause of why we do what we do: smoke, drink, overeat, over consume, worry, stress about anything, then with that understanding we can pause, consider the trigger, slowly understand our motivations, and choose something better. Brewer even admits, “We aren’t trying to change behavior…we are attempting to increase awareness.”
Another thing that I felt was unique with his approach is that when we practice true mindfulness we take our thoughts and behaviors much less personally. By doing research and using MRIs to track where addiction and obsessive thoughts show up in the brain, Brewer has come to the conclusion that our habits, obsessions and compulsions come from a strong sense of “ME.” He is able to show pictures of our brains that light up in a specific area when our addiction is being fed. (No matter what that addiction might be.) That same area of our brain lights up and correlates whenever we are focused on anything that we overly identify with or define ourselves as (like getting lots of likes for a photo of ourselves on FB). So, whenever our sense of self is highly activated, this same area of our brain is working hard. But when we meditate and/or become hyper-mindful, the workings of that region of our brain quiets down and goes dark with much less activity. We become more universally aware and less attached. Could it be that when we obsess over Facebook, eating unhealthy food, or stressing in the middle of the night, it is because we are so highly focused on ourselves?
How does that look in real life? Dr. Brewer has developed three different apps that can help increase mindfulness in the areas that he finds problematic: #1 Smoking; #2 Binge eating; and #3 Anxiety. Again, the thinking behind his therapy isn’t to try to get you to stop doing something you are compulsive about. What he attempts to do is to help us daily become more aware of why we are doing what we are doing, and how it really feels in our mind and body so we can mindfully make better choices. According to his research he has an approximate 40% success rate using his techniques in those areas. And in case you are wondering, I’m not getting any kickback whatsoever from providing this information. I just think it is such a great approach that I’m almost tempted to try their free trial and 100% guarantee just to see how it works.
I know that some of us struggle more from addictions than others. But regardless of where we fall on that spectrum, every single one of us has a brain that tends to respond in the same biological ways. That cue-behavior-reward process is alive and strong in each of us regardless of whether we are talking about too being overly attached to Facebook, our Smart phone, or a smoking addition. For those of us who appreciate discovering how our minds work and why we sometimes do things that have “adverse outcomes” even when we know better, this is valuable information. And it is always beneficial and SMART to continue to learn and mindfully expand our awareness each and every day of our lives.
This ad from Weight Watchers shows how the motivations behind our addictions are a big part of why we often eat things that aren’t good for us.
Dr Sock says
Kathy, I watched Judson Brewer’s TED talk a while ago. After reading your post, I looked up and watched a couple other online videos about his theory and method. One related mindfulness to meditation. He used a biofeedback technique and showed that both distraction and effortful control impeded the flow of meditation. This fits well with my experience. Although a few times in a situation of guided meditation I have managed to reach a deep meditative state, most of the time when I try to meditate (or even in Shavassana in yoga), my mind is flitting about, thinking, thinking, thinking. (My to-do lists tend to pop up). I try to notice the thought and let it go, it before I know it, my monkey brain has gone down another rabbit hole (to mix a metaphor). I think the research on mindfulness is really interesting and shows a lot of promise for helping people, although most of the approaches aren’t very easy to apply.
Similarly to you, I coined those incessant thoughts my “gorilla brain”. I currently deal with anxiety and newly sober so I found this post very helpful! Mindfulness is something I have to keep in mind every day because if I don’t my “gorilla brain” takes over. I will definitely be checking out Dr. Brewer’s app, thank you again for a wonderful post!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Nikki! I like the idea of “gorilla brain” but I have to admit that it seems MUCH bigger than I want to think of that part of me. 🙂 Monkey mind is a little easier to control and not quite so overwhelming IMHO. But hey, whatever works is what matters right. I would LOVE to hear what you think of the apps that Dr. Brewer has…and best of all, that 30 day free and 100% money back guarantee really makes it seem helpful. Please check back once you’ve had a chance to try them out. ~Kathy
Gary Lange says
Great article Kathy. As we know, addictions are devastating and the quicker we decide to something about them the better. I am going to recommend Dr. Brewer’s apps to my clients.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Gary! I was hoping you would check in with this post and let me know what you think. Did you see the videos on Youtube? This just makes a lot of sense to me and helped me understand some of what is going on inside me when I find myself hooked into some behavior that doesn’t serve me. Self awareness is so-o-o important. I also appreciated that he didn’t claim this was a “cure” for addiction, only that it can and does help some people. When I first heard he developed an “addiction app” I thought what???? But it makes sense that if you are trying to build awareness that a once a week in even the best doctor’s office can’t always give you what you need. A daily app that you carry around with you that asks you to repeatedly check in with yourself could be the answer for many. Thanks again for letting me know what you thought of this! ~Kathy
As I’ve aged, my anxiety has increased over the last few years. Not sure why, maybe I was so busy with work that I didn’t have time to notice. Like Janis mentioned I wake up if I have something on my mind, but have learned to talk out loud to myself and tell myself to deal with it in the morning. Doesn’t always work but I’ll try anything. My anxiety manifests physically as neck and shoulder pain, especially now that I have pending foot surgery in a week. Fear of the unknown I guess. A great post, Kathy, with good ideas. Thanks!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Terri! I think what many of us are feeling these days is a sense of overwhelm with everything we are attempting to accomplish. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is something that has crept up on you because you always seem to be doing so many wonderful things….and while they may be absolutely wonderful, as you know, we all need time to refresh! I too carry stress in my shoulders so I unfortunately can relate. And darn about the foot surgery…of course if you can relax into and use it as a time to nurture yourself that would be awesome. May everything go smoothly and your “downtime” turn into something perfect and healing just for you. ~Kathy
Misty Summers says
Mindfulness has truly saved me from anxiety. I did not even realize growing up how anxious I was. It was just a normal state for me. Thank you for the info about Dr. Brewer and his methods. Its such great info to help spread throughout the world.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Misty! Glad to hear you found this helpful and interesting. When I read or listen to anything that I think will benefit others (not to mention myself!) I love to share it. ~Kathy
Hi Kathy, I often read your posts twice because I want to truly absorb the information. This was one of them. I welcome all suggestions to help with a good night’s sleep, a challenge for me. I often do suffer from the Monkey brain at night, and I have been finding more tools to help me manage my thoughts. Recently, I have been using the concept of clouds drifting by. Thoughts are not real and they are not us. I think this concept came from Eckhart Tolle. Focusing on breath is always part of this process. I always appreciate the information you share and your candor, Kathy:)
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Erica! Yes..this post was a bit “thick” so reading it twice might be good. When I find a topic that intrigues me I get excited and want to share them with everyone…and just hope that I am doing the topic justice. This one was way more complicated but I couldn’t help myself. Just glad to see it is getting others to at least think about the idea. And yes, that idea of Echart’s is a big part of the mindfulness process. When we know our worries, concerns and obsessions are just thoughts…certainly not who we are or even true to begin with…it makes it easier to let them go…but I sure NEED practice to remember that!!! 🙂 ~Kathy
I am with you, Kathy. It is a daily practice for me, too. Thank you for the great information!
Nancy Dobbins says
I’d not thought of those sleepless nights as a sort of addiction. It is certainly a situation that has negative consequences.
I do find the the mindfulness techniques have worked…when I actually employ them regularly.
And I can talk myself out of anxiety to a great extent, and distract myself from the feeling by doing something else – like you walking the dog instead of the morning cigarette.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Nancy! Yes, according to Brewer any “habit” that has negative consequences that we can’t seem to let go of is some form of addiction. A lot of it is the unconscious triggering and then unconscious reaction/behavior that comes out of it. That’s why he is so convinced that mindfulness is a great tool to overcome it. And yes, getting to the point where we can either ‘talk ourselves out of it” or distract ourselves is a wonderful way to let go of anxiety. ~Kathy
Rebecca Forstadt Olkowski says
I apparently eat too much lettuce when I’m happy, sad, and bored. But it adds up because my weight just sits there. If I was eating cheese balls and soda, it would make sense. A trigger is a trigger. Great post, Kathy.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Rebecca! Sorry to hear that lettuce isn’t doesn’t seem to make much difference…but it HAS to be better for your body over all, right? And yeah, one person’s trigger isn’t necessarily another’s. I see that with Thom all the time. He sometimes can’t understand why I even care when certain things happen…and the same goes for things that make him crazy. So important to know what triggers US, huh? ~Kathy
I find that I mostly get monkey mind at night when I have something I need to do but haven’t done yet (often because of procrastination). The best cure for that, I have found, is to just get it done so my monkey can cross it off its list. BUT, also often, in the morning, I realize that whatever kept me up wasn’t that big of a deal. Loved that Weight Watchers ad… ain’t it the truth?!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Janis! I agree about the to-do list in the middle of the night. Sometimes that triggers me and sometimes it is something that just happened out of the blue. The trick is remembering that all that thinking about it while lying in bed is VERY counter-productive, right? And like you said, much of the time it isn’t any big deal anyway. Learning how to quiet that loop is pretty important no matter how we get there. And yes, wasn’t that ad interesting. According to Brewer, he asked WW why he’d never seen it on TV and they told him it was because too many people found it “depressing.” Hmmmm….. ~Kathy
Once again, this is great food for thought, Kathy. I originally had the same question as Tom. I like your explanation.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! Thanks for letting me know you liked my explanation. I was going to put all that in the article but wanted to see if anyone cared 🙂 ~Kathy
Jamie Hart says
I am going to check into this further. Any tool I can add to my toolbox will be helpful. When I do not want to feel something I stay distracted That is easy to do during my waking hours but nighttime does not work for me. Years ago, after cancer treatment (12 years now cancer free) I started waking up in the middle of the night and would eat. I still have that tendency when daytime stress is high and it is currently.
I will let you know if this helps
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jamie! I would love to hear back if you find this helpful. While Dr. Brewer claims a 40% success rate on his app, I’m only hoping it does help. He believes it is ideal because it is a daily check in point (with education) to help people get to the core of why they continue certain behaviors even when they know they are not beneficial. That just makes sense to me. I also do believe in the power of meditation and mindfulness. If you don’t get the app, there are a number of youtube videos of Dr. Judson Brewer that you also might find helpful. I am always fascinated to learn different ways our brains work, and it if helps us live a more happy and people life. ~Kathy
Tom at Sightings says
I get how the cue-behavior-reward process works with soda and social media (and right now I’m vowing to drink more water, less soda). But how does it work with the middle-of-the-night monkey in the head. Get up and drink a glass of water?
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Tom! Good question. He didn’t address this issue specifically but from everything I listened to it reminded me that when I work to train my mind to focus on either eliminating thoughts or focus on something helpful, I can stop obsessing about most things. That’s where the mindfulness training comes into play. According to him, (and I agree) mindfulness isn’t trying to STOP your thoughts, it is recognizing you are NOT your thoughts…and then letting them pass by. This is especially reinforced when you focus on something like your breath. I learned from another meditation person that focusing on the feeling and sensation on the bottom of my foot–while breathing–takes my mind away from any worry or obsessive thought in the middle of the night. And the more I practice that, during meditation and at night, the easier it is to drop those middle-of-the-night monkey thoughts. Brewer is convinced that much of anxiety (or worry, or stress) is a habitual response. We may have done it so much in the past that we have a difficult time realizing that it is a habit and that it is possible to re-train our brain to respond in a different way. I’m not saying this is easy (and I don’t think he is either) but it is possible and helpful. When I was younger I used to stay awake for hours with a worry or some concern and now I can usually stop it within a few minutes. Practice, practice, practice. ~Kathy
Addiction is such a hard thing to change with many not even admitting they have an addiction problem. A bad habit, bad choices, over zealous, crazy involved, work-aholic, are all soft ways to say there is an addiction. So any way to help is great and you cover some easily understandable solutions. Thanks Kathy!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! I agree it is a HUGE topic and I hope I explained what I think I heard in the interviews and talks I listened to about this. I believe our minds SO want to simplify things so we easily get hooked into anything that appears to be important and/or beneficial to us. That ranges from too much food (especially the wrong kind) to running scenarios in our mind. Just knowing that I do that, that we all do that, is helpful to me. And if I am a little too attached to any behavior, there are things I can do. Thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy