Curiosity Is A Superpower: Here's How To Use It To Combat Anxiety & Addiction
There's a reason you might reach for just another piece of candy or find yourself scrolling through your social media feed for an hour too long—at the core of any addiction is a lack of mindfulness.
Addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist Jud Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., has spent over 15 years studying why we make bad habits—and what makes them so difficult to break. Through clinical trials and research galore (in addition to working as the director of research and innovation at Brown University's Mindfulness Center), Brewer believes there is one thing that can help relieve our harmful habits: our curiosity.
"It's about one simple ingredient. It's about paying attention,” he tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
Simple? Maybe, but curiosity can very well be the determining factor in helping people break free from their vices. Here's exactly how the simple act of paying attention can help you combat harmful habits, from addiction to anxiety. Consider curiosity the greatest superpower you already have.
Curiosity and addictions.
Being curious about your addictions can ultimately help you break them, whether you have an affinity for sugar or are trying to quit a lifelong smoking habit.
No matter your addiction, Brewer doesn't want you to quit cold turkey. Rather, he wants you to go about your regular routine, just be completely conscious while you do it. Too often we're mindlessly going through the motions (i.e., munching on a bag of chips in front of the TV)—so much so, that we don't even find the action stimulating.
The solution? Pay attention to what you're doing or eating, and be curious about it. For example, if you're going to indulge in a piece of cake, truly savor the experience. Eat slow, and be mindful of how you feel during the experience. "That's what mindfulness is all about," Brewer says.
Brewer says you should also be curious about when you feel your cravings. "Map out what your habit loops are around eating. So, for example, if you're stressed, do you go to cake to make yourself feel better?" Noticing those habit loops (and being curious about them) is the first step to breaking those habits in the first place—you can recognize exactly what's at the root of addictions rather than relying on your willpower to cut them out.
And it doesn't work just for sugar addictions; Brewer uses this tactic for every addiction patient, including heavy smokers. Once they become curious about the habit (how it feels, how it tastes, how it affects your body), they tend to become disenchanted by the habit. Meaning, it just doesn't seem so glamorous or rewarding anymore.
Curiosity and anxious thoughts.
Another addicting behavior that we might not be familiar with is anxiety. Anxiety is actually a habit, according to Brewer, as people tend to mindlessly fall victim to the different symptoms.
And because anxiety is a habit, Brewer says curiosity can help bring you out of that anxious thought loop.
They're similar questions you might ask yourself if you're trying to wean off refined sugar: What does it feel like? How does it affect your body? Brewer adds, "What does anxiety feel like as compared to pushing it off, or taking a pill, or trying to make it go away?"
This curiosity can allow people to realize that a lot of their anxiety is a result of their reactions—which makes the feeling not so scary. "As they get curious about it, they realize, 'Oh, these are just physical sensations, and I don't have to resist them. I don't have to get caught up in them,'" Brewer notes.
So, whether you're feeling stressed or can't seem to lay off the sugar, keep in mind that there is a technique that can help you slow down and take stock of what (and how) you're feeling, and it doesn't cost a thing. Pretty soon, you'll have the tools you need to consider your addictions broken—all it takes is a little mindfulness.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.