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America is getting ready to go back into the office. Though the Delta variant and the uptick in the pandemic may be slowing that transition, companies are making plans to reopen their offices. According to a recent survey by the recruiting firm LaSalle Network, three-quarters of American companies are either reopening offices and bringing employees back for in-person work or making plans to. And with re-entry comes… re-entry anxiety. 

In an American Psychological Association poll, nearly half of respondents said they feel anxious about returning to in-person interaction. That’s no doubt at least one reason why so many people say they’d rather continue working from home than head back into the office. And even before the pandemic, anxiety disorders were the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18% of adults and 25% of children. But despite how widespread anxiety is, because we understand so little of what it actually is, we don’t know how to manage it in our day-to-day lives. Transitions are, of course, big drivers of anxiety. And no matter whether you’re going to continue working as you’ve been for the last year, or be heading back to the office full-time or figuring out some form of hybrid work, this next phase in our lives is already causing anxiety for many.

And I’m one of them. That’s why I was so excited to have Dr. Judson Brewer as a guest on a recent episode of Deloitte’s “WorkWell” podcast, which is about ways we can improve our well-being and life-work integration. Dr. Brewer is a renowned neuroscientist and psychiatrist who specializes in addiction and anxiety. Currently, he’s an associate professor at Brown University and executive medical director at Sharecare. His new book, a New York Times best seller, is Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.

As someone who has suffered from anxiety himself, Dr. Brewer has used the term “mesearch” to describe his work into the phenomenon. And he’s noticed commonalities between anxiety and addiction. The definition of the latter is continued use despite adverse consequences. As he noted, this can apply to many of the behaviors that we use to deal with our anxiety, like losing ourselves in social media or binge-watching shows.

Anxiety, he explained, can become a kind of habit loop of worry, which can then, in turn, feed back on itself, driving “more anxiety through negative reinforcement, because it gives us a temporary distraction.” And often, those temporary distractions not only fail to address the root of the problem, they end up simply creating more bad habits.

But there is a way to actually break that negative feedback loop. It starts with awareness, which, as Dr. Brewer put it, “is what helps us see how rewarding something is in the present moment.” That means learning to recognize when our brains are going into a dead end of worry. And to do that, instead of distracting ourselves out of anxiety, or trying to stop it out of sheer willpower (a “dead end”), we can ask ourselves questions like, is worrying solving the problem? What am I getting by worrying? Am I judging myself? Is worrying making me perform better? As Dr. Brewer pointed out, studies show that worrying impairs our performance. And once we have more understanding of how anxiety can create these worry loops, we can begin to “map” our habits. And Dr. Brewer actually offers a free mapping tool at Mapmyhabit.com.

Once we become more aware of when we’re in a worry loop, we can begin to bring in curiosity. As Dr. Brewer explained, that’s very different from anxiety. “Anxiety feels more closed or contracted, whereas curiosity feels more open and expanded,” he told me. “You can’t be closed and open at the same time, because they are binary opposites. If we close down anxiety, we can actually inject some curiosity.”

And “when we are just truly trying to see things as they are, curiosity feels better,” Dr. Brewer says. When we use our curiosity to ask ourselves, for instance, what does this feel like in my body, where does it sit in my body, how does this feeling change over time, instead of saying, as Dr. Brewer put it, “Oh, no!” we can simply say, “Oh.” And each time we say “Oh,” Dr. Brewer says, “that’s a sign that we are awakening and fostering our curiosity.”

And that’s what allows us to create a new and more positive reinforcement habit loop. It’s what Dr. Brewer calls the “B.B.O.,” or the Bigger, Better Offer. “Our brain is going to learn that being curious about anxiety is that ‘Bigger, Better Offer,’ as compared to being lost or caught up in a cycle of anxiety and worry.” And once we “rinse and repeat,” we can create a new and more healthy habit.

Yes, uncertainty can drive anxiety, and this is a very uncertain moment. “Whatever our pandemic habit is, whether it’s working from home, whether it’s wearing masks in public, whether it’s not congregating with friends — and just thinking about congregating with friends without a mask can make people pretty anxious,” said Dr. Brewer. “Why? Because it’s uncertain, because they haven’t done it in a year.”

Whether or not we’re preparing to re-enter the office, we’re all preparing to enter a new phase of how we live and work. And if we bring greater awareness and understanding to what triggers our anxiety, when we use our curiosity to examine our anxiety without judging ourselves, we can begin to, as Dr. Brewer puts it, be “back in the driver’s seat, instead of being driven by anxiety.”

If you find yourself feeling anxious these days — and who doesn’t! — you’ll find this episode very useful. You can listen to the whole thing here.    


  • Jen Fisher

    𝗩𝗼𝗶𝗰𝗲 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘄𝗲𝗹𝗹𝗯𝗲𝗶𝗻𝗴 + 𝗵𝘂𝗺𝗮𝗻 𝘀𝘂𝘀𝘁𝗮𝗶𝗻𝗮𝗯𝗶𝗹𝗶𝘁𝘆 | 𝖡𝖾𝗌𝗍𝗌𝖾𝗅𝗅𝗂𝗇𝗀 𝖠𝗎𝗍𝗁𝗈𝗋 | 𝖳𝖤𝖣𝗑 𝖲𝗉𝖾𝖺𝗄𝖾𝗋 | 𝖧𝗈𝗌𝗍 #𝖶𝗈𝗋𝗄𝖶𝖾𝗅l | 𝖳𝗁𝗋𝗂𝗏𝖾 𝖤𝖽𝗂𝗍𝗈𝗋

    Jen Fisher is a leading voice on the intersection of work, well-being, and purpose. Her mission is to help leaders move from the legacy mindset that well-being is solely the responsibility of the individual to the forward-thinking idea of human sustainability, which supports the long-term, collective well-being of individuals, organizations, climate, and society.  

    She’s the co-author of the bestselling, award-winning book, Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines, the Human Sustainability Editor-at-Large for Thrive Global, and the host of the WorkWell podcast series.

    As the first chief well-being officer of a professional services organization, Jen built and led the creation and execution of a pioneering holistic and inclusive well-being strategy that has received recognition from leading business media brands and associations.

    Jen is a frequent writer on issues impacting the workplace today, including the importance of mental health and social connection to workforce resilience, happiness, and productivity. Her work has been featured in CNBC, CNN, Fast Company, Fortune, Inc, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Harvard Business Review, among others.

    She’s a sought-after speaker and has been featured at events including TEDx, World Happiness Summit, Out & Equal Workplace Summit, Acumen Global Gathering, WorkHuman, The Atlantic Pursuit of Happiness event, and more. She’s also lectured at top universities across the country, including Harvard, Wake Forest, Duke, and George Mason.

    Jen is passionate about sharing her breast cancer and burnout recovery journeys to help others. She’s also a healthy lifestyle enthusiast, self-care champion, exercise fanatic, sleep advocate, and book nerd! Jen lives in Miami with her husband, Albert, and dog, Fiona.

    You can find her on LinkedIn or on Twitter and Instagram @JenFish23. You can also receive her personal insights and reflections by subscribing to her newsletter, "Thoughts on Being Well" @jenfisher.substack.com.