Anxiety exists inside the habits that make up our everyday lives, and habits are sticky because our brain is attracted to these habits because they create some sense of reward
Our lives are made up of a collection of habits. Those everyday things you do without really thinking about them: brushing your teeth, making your bed, putting the kettle on first thing in the morning, driving the same way to work. These are all useful habits; the problem comes when our habits are unhelpful, because as philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, ‘The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.’
But why talk about habits in an article about anxiety?
A world-renowned and respected psychiatrist and mindfulness expert, Dr Judson Brewer from Brown University in the USA, says that although mindfulness and awareness of our thoughts and feelings are important when managing anxiety, they are the last steps, not the first one.
To truly manage anxiety well, we need to examine our habits first. Why? Well, we first need to understand that our brains work on a reward system. When we do something that feels good, our brain releases dopamine, which makes us motivated to repeat that particular behaviour. So, we take the same action, get the ‘reward’ of dopamine, and the cycle continues, creating a habit.
Think of it as a trigger/behaviour result:
Trigger − Feel anxious
Behaviour − Eat something sugary
Result − Get distracted from your anxiety and momentarily feel better
So next time you feel anxious, you go eat some cake! Not helpful, but it feels good (for a moment) and so our brain’s dopamine hot makes us want to do it again the next time we get anxious.
But what about worry, you may ask?
Trigger − Feel anxious
Behaviour − Worry (think about the ‘What ifs?’, ruminate about work, etc)
Result − More anxiety
Why would we worry when the results are not something pleasant (like cake) but rather result in more anxiety? When we worry, we can feel like at least we are doing something and think maybe we will be able to find a solution to a situation. Sometimes we think if we don’t worry we will be unprepared, so worrying gives a sense of control. Other times worrying is better than just sitting with our anxiety. So, strangely enough, worrying can feel ‘good’ in some way, and our brains reward that mental behaviour and we are motivated to do more of it!
HOW TO MANAGE THIS
Identify your anxiety habits
What is your Trigger, Behaviour, Result? Think about what makes you feel anxious, what you normally do about it, and how this makes you feel.
Change the reward
Try to be more mindful and aware of the habits as the trigger happen. At that point remind yourself that although that cake tastes delicious now, you will feel far worse (and guilty) later. What you are trying to do is re-wire that dopamine reward and ‘show’ your brain that the reward is actually not a good one.
Of course it can be difficult to be aware of triggers in the moment, so also spend some time each day reflecting on situations thinking through the triggers and behaviours that did happen and reminding yourself if the reward was not good.
Create more helpful habits
Think through what you would rather be doing when you get anxious other than eating cake – or rather than worrying about a situation. Teach your brain that these new behaviours need to be rewarded and eventually new, healthy habits will form.