Although there are plenty to choose from, we probably don’t need another poll to tell us more Canadians report experiencing anxiety lately.

Most of us know it already, because we’re living it. Even though I probably wouldn’t have characterized myself as a particularly anxious person, I’d certainly call myself a worrier. And, between vaccine hunting and the rise of the variants, there’s been a lot more worrying than usual. So I decided to search for “anxiety symptoms” and, according to the top hit on Google, the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S., I pretty much have them all. Well, thanks to the polls, at least I know I’m not alone.

“It’s amazing how much anxiety has increased in the last year,” says Dr. Jud Brewer, author of the new book “Unwinding Anxiety.”

“And it fits with everything we know about neuroscience, since we know our brains really don’t like uncertainty. So, whether it’s the future of our health or the economy or schools, there’s been one uncertainty on top of another. And that really makes our brains even more anxious.”

Brewer, an associate professor at Brown University and executive medical director at Sharecare, a digital health platform, has been working on the anxiety problem for 25 years, ever since he realized in medical school that he himself had issues.

Brewer takes pains to point out that even though we seem to be living in an era of heightened anxiety, it’s not new. In fact, anxiety is built into us to help us survive: uncertainty drives us to get information.

“It’s kind of like our stomach being empty and driving us to go eat some food,” he says. “That experience of restlessness is a similar mechanism, except it’s easier to get food than it is to get information, especially when it’s about something we don’t have the answer to.”

He continues: “So if we can’t get that information, or if the information is ambiguous or fake or all of those things, these factors can drive anxiety, because it’s not alleviating uncertainty.”

When we’re frustrated by that lack of information and the continued uncertainty, sometimes we temporarily distract ourselves from the resulting anxiety with less-than-good behaviours: snacks, drinks, binge-watching or doom-scrolling. Brewer calls these “habit loops,” which may have played a role in the “Quarantine 15” weight gain, which for some people is starting to evolve into the “Quarantine 30.”

If knowing it is half the battle, though, we should be able to stop it by telling ourselves not to react to anxiety with distractions, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy to harness the power of will, according to neuroscience. Different parts of the brain are responsible for different functions and behaviours and, when we’re stressed or anxious, the prefrontal cortex, which handles a lot of rational stuff, including willpower, goes offline — right when you need it most.

The good news is that there are ways of doing things without your prefrontal cortex getting involved. Brewer’s research into neuroscience and mindfulness has shown that joyful curiosity and kindness can help dial back high anxiety, especially if you apply that attitude to the anxiety itself. In a way, Brewer’s advice, is to “lean in” to your anxiety, by a) not beating yourself up for having it and b) getting curious about what makes anxiety tick and how it manifests physically in your body, be it muscle tension, jaw-clenching, restlessness, difficulty concentrating or insomnia.

Still, it’s one thing to understand it and quite another to try to figure out how to become joyful and get curious about your anxiety. Fortunately, Brewer’s book offers a few concrete suggestions that include the super-simple exercise of opening your eyes wide for 10 seconds when feeling frustrated or anxious. Apparently, this jump-starts our curiosity mechanisms and tamps down the anxiety.

“Another one of my favourites is the five-finger breathing practice,” says Brewer, “I have a YouTube video that explains how it works in the brain, so that’s a good one for people to do.”

Designed to help you calm down, reboot your brain and help yourself be in the moment, the five-finger breathing practice is a simple exercise of running your index finger up and down the fingers of your other hand (sort of like that childhood game Johnny Whoop), and breathing deeply in and out five times — one time for each finger.

Another thing that’s easy to do is to look out the window, pay attention to your breathing and watch for motion. Or, at the end of the day, do a five- or 10-minute “body scan” wherein you pay close attention to the sensations in all of the different parts of your body.

There are more techniques on Brewer’s “Unwinding Anxiety” app. Even though I’m partial to print media, since I think it’s a more efficient way to get information than apps or podcasts, I found myself quite won over by the app.

I’m only a week into the five-week program, so I wouldn’t call myself a total convert just yet, but when I was reading the book I found myself getting anxious that I might not be able to apply the wisdom to my daily life. With the app, just five days in I found myself explaining that emails from a certain person went straight to my central nervous system before I even opened them.



Those emails are still going to hit my inbox, even after the pandemic ends (we say hopefully), so I figure I might as well try to chip away at the anxiety now. It’s not only about COVID-19, right?

“Yes, this is just an example of what we face all the time, which is why anxiety has been with us for a long time,” says Brewer. “And if we don’t know how to work with it, it will always be with us because the only certain thing is that there is uncertainty and the only unchanging thing is that there is constant change.”


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