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What Is the Anxiety Habit Loop and How to Change It

Our brains are always looking for efficient ways to work. The brain forms habits to simplify tasks, such as driving a car. Even feeling anxious can actually be our brains stuck in unhealthy habits. That’s the core idea behind the so-called anxiety habit loops. But, in order to break these cycles, we first have to understand how these anxiety loops occur and how our brains work to unwind them.

How do we form habits?

We need to understand why our brains develop habits. Habits free up space in our brains to learn new things. Otherwise, imagine how exhausted we would be if we had to learn daily habits such as walking, cooking, or making coffee every day. Habits help us learn something once so we can automatically act on those behaviors without thinking. 

We develop countless habits as we navigate the world, whether we are aware of them or not.

We learn habits based on how rewarding behavior is. Our brain assigns a reward value to our behaviors. It remembers the value of people, places, things, emotions, feelings, sensations, and actions. 

Over time, it starts acting on the behaviors with the highest reward value.

In the early days of humankind, this was highly beneficial. Our brain’s reward center functioned as a survival tool that helped us seek out what we needed to survive, like food or warmth to stay alive.

In today’s world, our constant search for feel-good experiences can often drive us in less-than-helpful directions. Just because something makes us feel good for a short time doesn’t mean it’s good for our overall well-being. Or just because something feels uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s dangerous.

This is why we have good and bad habits.

What is a habit loop?

Habits help our brains operate more efficiently. Psychologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered a cue-routine-reward feedback loop that journalist Charles Duhigg later coined “the habit loop” in his book “The Power of Habit.”

Here’s how the habit loop works:

  1. First, there’s a trigger: You experience a stimulus or cue. It could be external (an alert on your phone) or internal (a particular feeling).
  2. Second, you engage in behavior: The trigger causes you to engage in a behavior, thought, or action. For example, you check your phone (external) or begin worrying excessively (internal).
  3. Third, your brain experiences a result: The result, sometimes called the “reward,” may give you pleasure for a short time, temporarily satisfying your craving. The pleasure of the relief you experience reinforces the cue, making it more triggering the next time. 

Unhelpful habit loops often provide short-term relief and a whole bunch of other unhelpful results that can last much longer.  

Understanding the anxiety habit loop

To understand anxiety habit loops, we have to look back at the definition of anxiety: “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

When uncertainty abounds, we feel anxious. Dr. Jud Brewer, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, specializing in anxiety and habit management, explains how “uncertainty or a fear of the unknown can make us feel anxious.” This feeling urges us to do something; if we don’t find an answer, our brain finds a distraction to make us feel better.

“It’s survival 101,” says Dr. Brewer. And in an anxiety loop, it can look like this:

  1. Trigger: Stress or anxiety
  2. Behavior: Try to find a solution (worry thinking)
  3. Result: Find a solution (sometimes)

The problem is that worry thinking works as a distraction from our anxiety or gives us a sense of control, which can feel rewarding. Even if you aren’t solving any problems – just spinning out of control by worrying more – that feeling of doing something can be rewarding.

Dr. Brewer states, “the worrying mind doesn’t come up with a solution.” Based on his habit loop, worry only triggers anxiety, which triggers more worry, and so on. For example, anxiety-related habit loops happen when anxiety reinforces itself, which might look something like this:

  1. Trigger: Negative emotion or thought
  2. Behavior: Worry
  3. Result: Avoidance or distraction

The problem is that distractions can lead to unhealthy habits and leave us caught up in a tight ball of anxiety. Brewer calls distraction the “modern-day equivalent of avoiding danger in ancient times.” Worrying as behavior can trigger what Brewer calls the “anxiety loop:”

  1. Trigger: Anxiety
  2. Behavior: Worry
  3. Result: Feel more anxious

This worrying behavior only needs to happen a few times before our brain falls into the habit of trying it the next time we feel anxious.  

Why are habits so hard to break?

Of course, habits can be challenging to break. An MIT research study found that a specific brain region, the basal ganglia, changes whenever habits are formed or broken. In the study, researchers found that even when we eliminate a behavior, our brains retain memory of our habits and can be triggered again if the right cue comes back.

This is why old habits are so hard to break.

However, we can work with our brain’s reward-based learning system to change behavior. Our brains need new information to update the reward value previously assigned to certain behaviors. 

To do this, ask yourself: What am I really getting from this behavior?

Explore how the results feel – emotionally and physically. 

For example, worry may feel like you’re “doing something,” and you may notice some physical tension in your face and body. You may also notice an exhausting cycle of thoughts and feelings; you feel a decreased ability to reason, increased anxiety, and so on. 

By unwinding the anxiety habit loop and breaking it into its three main elements, you can identify habits to jolt your brain out of the loop and see how rewarding or unrewarding a precise behavior is for you right now.

How to break the habit loop

According to Brewer’s research, our brain assigns a “reward value” to most internal and external triggers. If something makes us feel good, the brain says, “let’s do it again!” 

“The more rewarding a behavior is, the stronger the habit around it will be,” says Brewer.

Our brains use this reward value system to set up a hierarchy for our behaviors. The behavior with the bigger reward is the one our brains choose and the one we act on. Brewer explains how this might have to deal with the amount of dopamine that fires up our brain’s reward centers when we first learn a behavior. 

To update these reward values, Brewer suggests practicing awareness.

We need to feed our brains with new information to let them know the value we assigned to places, things, people, or sensations in the past is now outdated. When our brain receives this new information, we’re resetting the reward value on an old habit and changing the hierarchy of rewards. 

Over time, the more we do this, we can break the loop and introduce new (healthier) habits.

Another element of breaking the anxiety loop is learning how to accept discomfort. When we learn how our brain works, we can start seeing anxiety from a different perspective. 

Psychologist Dr. Caroline Buzanko states that we must “see the discomfort that comes with anxiety as normal and not dangerous.” Anxiety exists to protect ourselves, ingrained in our brain’s fight-or-flight response mechanism.

Of course, our survival brains are not always helpful in today’s modern world. 

We can use awareness to teach the worrying part of the brain that not everything uncomfortable is dangerous. And that the probability of the worst-case scenario happening is very low in most cases. 

By tapping into awareness and curiosity with kindness and self-compassion, we can learn how to rewire our brains to look at anxiety differently. With patience, daily practice, and repetition, we can start feeling less anxious and more like ourselves.

Learn more about habit loops with Unwinding Anxiety 

Exploring anxiety as a habit can be a compelling way of dismantling anxiety’s power over us. When we learn to work with our brain and not against it, we can find a way to break habit loops. Dr. Brewer developed the Unwinding Anxiety program based on clinically-validated lessons and modules designed to help you understand how to work with anxiety. 

The program includes different modules that break down anxiety as a habit and work on explaining how the brain works. Each daily module teaches you more about working with your mind to become more aware of anxiety loops. 

Each day, you’ll unlock practical materials that break down the concept of anxiety into bite-sized pieces. You’ll learn how to work with your mind to feel less anxious and more like yourself again. The program includes:

  • Short videos and audio lessons to break down how anxiety works
  • Mindfulness exercises to help reduce anxiety
  • Daily check-ins to help manage stress levels and practice mindfulness

Data from the Unwinding Anxiety program shows a 67% reduction in anxiety symptoms after three months in a study on anxious physicians. We believe you can find relief from anxiety with consistent practice, patience, and mindful curiosity. 

Try out the first four modules of the program to see if it’s right for you. Sign up for a free trial today and start learning how your mind works to unwind your anxiety loops.

Sources

Cathryn M. (2005, October 19). Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard.

Smith KS, Graybiel AM. (2016, March 18). Habit formation.

Caroline B. (2021, November 17). Stuckness: How to Help Clients Break the Anxiety Cycle.

Judson B. (August 2019). Mindfulness training for addictions: has neuroscience revealed a brain hack by which awareness subverts the addictive process?

Lee, S. J., Lodder, B., Chen, Y., Patriarchi, T., Tian, L., & Sabatini, B. L. (2020). Cell-type-specific asynchronous modulation of PKA by dopamine in learning

Ludwig, V. U., Brown, K. W., & Brewer, J. A. (2020). Self-Regulation Without Force: Can Awareness Leverage Reward to Drive Behavior Change?

Borza L. (2017). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for generalized anxiety. 

Roy A, Druker S, Hoge EA, Brewer JA. (2019, July 24). Physician Anxiety and Burnout: Symptom Correlates and a Prospective Pilot Study of App-Delivered Mindfulness Training.

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