Dawn’s first light finds Jud Brewer ’96 “pumping down the line” on his surfboard at Rhode Island’s Matunuck Beach. That’s surfer slang for riding the face of a wave in a smooth, flowing way. Brewer, an associate professor of psychiatry at Brown’s medical school, catches waves in his black wetsuit almost every morning before heading to Brown’s Mindfulness Center, where he is the director of research and innovation.
“Surfing is such a great metaphor for life,” says Brewer. “You have to be in tune with the ocean. You have to pay attention all the time, because a wave can come and knock you off. You can’t get frustrated. If you fall, you can’t beat yourself up. What I try to do is bow to the ocean as a teacher and ask, ‘What can I learn?’”
Brewer’s new book, Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind, teaches readers how to ride life’s waves — Covid-induced and otherwise — without drowning in what he calls today’s “epidemic” of anxiety. Most of his work focuses on anxiety outside the pandemic. Some of the blame goes to social media, which he says is “designed for outrage and cute puppies, and that’s about it.”
The bigger problem, he says, is that modern life is too easy. “For physical pain, we can take a pill. If we’re bored, we can distract ourselves on social media,” he says. As a result, people are losing their ability to tolerate stress. Some of the worst offenders might be parents. “They model distracting behavior on their phones to their kids instead of teaching them stress tolerance,” says Brewer. “So now, when we move out of our comfort zone, it becomes a panic zone and we start freaking out.”
In his clinic, he teaches patients his evidence-based mindfulness programs for smoking, emotional eating, and anxiety. The digital health platform ShareCare last year purchased Brewer’s behavioral health company MindSciences, which created the apps Craving to Quit, Eat Right Now, and Unwinding Anxiety. His TED talk on breaking bad habits has been viewed more than 10 million times.
When told his gentle public manner resembles that of Mister Rogers, Brewer admits he’s seen the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” three times and cried. At Princeton, his kindly side showed itself when he and his roommate raised ducklings on the roof of Spelman Hall. “They imprinted on us,” Brewer recalls. “They used to walk across campus behind us, and we would take them swimming in the Woody Woo fountain.”
Like nearly one-third of adults, Brewer has fought his own anxiety. He says the cause is generally simple: Fear + Uncertainty = Anxiety. It can’t be willed away, and beating yourself up isn’t the answer, he says. Instead, he suggests getting into “the growth zone” — the habit of “being present, allowing yourself to simply be human,” he writes in his book.
Or, as he put it another way: “Curiosity kicks anxiety’s ass.”