We all experience anxiety from time to time, but sometimes anxiety can become a habit like any other. Learning how to change our relationship with anxiety is important. But, before we can try to change anything, we have to understand how our mind works to identify these anxiety-related habits. Only then – by working with our minds – can we fully grasp what these habits are so we can start creating new ones.
Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Anxiety can trigger worry, which can then trigger more anxiety, becoming a cycle of anxiety and worry.
For many, just reading this can trigger anxiety. And while these feelings might feel familiar, it doesn’t help us break the cycle.
We have to start by understanding how our minds and brains function so we can begin to step out of the process and break the cycle. This way, anxiety has less control over us, and we have more control over our lives.
What are habits?
We’ve heard the word “habit” a million times. We may think we understand what it is and can quickly point out a couple of good and bad habits we engage in. But, have you ever thought about habits from a scientific perspective? Why do we form habits? What can we learn from our habits?
A habit is defined as a “settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
Here’s how Dr. Jud Brewer explains habits: a habit comprises three elements – a trigger, a behavior, and a reward or result.
While discussing “rewards” may seem confusing, think about it as brain talk for all results after a behavior. In simpler terms, a reward is how much enjoyment our brain gets from doing something. It can be positive or negative – some results are not enjoyable (such as worry). If we pay close attention to these “rewards” we can understand habits better. There may be a brief relief if we feel worry is “doing something,” but in reality, we may just spend hours worrying and making our anxiety worse.
How does anxiety function as a habit?
According to Dr. Brewer, many habits have developed to help us reduce stress or satisfy our emotional needs – even if they don’t always benefit us in the long term.
In neuroscience research, this is known as reward-based learning. Our minds set habit loops based on the result of our actions. Our brains interpret these results as “rewards,” and these rewards shape our behavior.
However, as Dr. Brewer points out, “if we don’t know that we’re fueling our habit loops, we just keep doing it over and over.” The more we get caught up in these behaviors, the more automatic they become. Over time, we’re not consciously choosing these actions anymore, and our minds start running on auto-pilot, essentially forming what we know as habits.
What are anxiety habits?
For starters, external behaviors and rewards may drive anxiety habits. External behaviors involve doing or getting something outside of ourselves to feel better, i.e., eating, watching TV, or exercising whenever we feel anxious. These are generally temporary fixes that may not fix the underlying problem.
Here’s an example of a distraction anxiety habit:
- Trigger: Bad feeling, i.e., feel overwhelmed at work
- Behavior: Distract yourself, i.e., drink a cup of coffee
- Result: Feel better and distracted from feeling overwhelmed
The next time you feel overwhelmed at work, your mind will trigger you to get a cup of coffee because that was a rewarding distraction before.
Sometimes stress can be the trigger of a habit loop, and anxiety ends up being the reward:
- Trigger: Stress, i.e., feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list
- Behavior: Over-thinking, i.e., writing down the to-do list and worrying you won’t have enough time to complete it
- Result: Feel anxious about your to-do list
Then, there’s also a destructive anxiety-related habit, where anxiety reinforces itself, and we trap ourselves in a tiny ball of anxiety:
- Trigger: Anxious feeling
- Behavior: Worry or ruminating on what’s wrong or what could go wrong
- Result: Feel more anxious
While external behaviors are sometimes challenging to manage, we also have internal behaviors. Dr. Brewer explains how these internal behaviors, for example, mindfulness, curiosity, and self-compassion, live within ourselves. We can use these internal behaviors to break our anxiety habits.
Over time, if we replace our habitual behaviors of distraction or anxiety with a kind, curious awareness of what’s happening at the moment, we can break free from anxiety habits.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but there’s a clinically-validated method to help us make this happen.
How to break anxiety habits
The way our brain works isn’t the problem; it’s wired to form habits. The behaviors we adopt as part of this anxiety habit are what trip us up. However, this is where we might have some control.
Start with goals.
Setting long-term goals can help us stay on track, while short-term goals help us stay focused on achieving those long-term goals. When we celebrate small milestones in our journey, we feel we’re moving in the right direction. As Dr. Brewer says, “check in with your goals to remember why you’re on this journey, to begin with.”
Then, you can start your journey to understand your anxiety habits better.
Dr. Brewer’s methods which are detailed in both his book and digital therapeutic app by the same name Unwinding Anxiety outline a three-step process to help us overcome anxiety habits. This new approach to overcoming anxiety is based on research into how the brain forms habits and science-based mindfulness practices.
Step 1: Map out anxiety habits
The first step in changing habits is learning how they work. All habits have three elements: a trigger, a behavior, and a result.
The trigger is essentially the bait. It can be something you see, a place you visit, or an emotion. Some examples include: feeling frustrated, not being sure treatment is working, or overthinking.
The behavior is the habit itself. It can be a physical behavior like fidgeting or a mental behavior like excessive worrying. Some examples include: spending too much time on social media, dismissing your concerns, or biting your nails.
The result is how you feel after the behavior. In the short-term, you may experience some relief, but not as much in the long term. The long-term consequences of this “brief relief” can lead to a never-ending anxiety loop. Some examples include: avoiding emotions, worrying about your feelings, or getting burned out.
By breaking your anxiety habits into their parts, it’s easier to recognize how they start and how unhelpful these habits really are.
To help you identify your anxiety habits, ask yourself these questions:
- What’s the trigger? Is it a thought, emotion, or sensation?
- What is the behavior and why do you want to change it?
- Look at the result. What do you get from this?
And remember, it’s okay if you can’t identify the triggers right now. Focus on the behaviors and results first; this will help you recognize the triggers down the line.
Step 2: Use the brain’s reward system
Dr. Brewer talks about how our brains set a “reward value” for different places, people, and things we encounter. In essence, the more rewarding our brains think the behavior is, the stronger the habit around it will be.
The most sustainable way to change a habit is by updating the brain’s reward system. To do this, we need to become mindful of when the habits that support our anxiety occur.
According to Dr. Brewer’s research, if we can bring awareness to a subjective experience and behavior, we can make self-regulatory shifts that will result in sustained behavioral changes.
To explain this better, think of this scenario:
When you notice you’re anxious, you start worrying about the future. Make a mental note of this. Then, start becoming aware of your feelings, sensations, and emotions. Does your jaw clench? Do you feel a lump in your throat? Tightness in your chest? Do you feel scared or angry?
Use this approach as an opportunity to learn about yourself. Dr. Brewer calls this “non-judgmental awareness.” A chance to pay attention to what’s happening in a particular way, meaning with intention and curiosity – without judgment! This might be difficult at first, but try to ask open questions about your feelings and emotions rather than critical questions that question your feelings.
This approach can help us not get caught up in the push/pull of anxiety as our minds direct us on how to rethink our relationship with anxiety.
Eventually, we’ll learn to perform this body scan automatically. In the meantime, recall the last time you felt anxiety got the best of you and reflect on the effects of a particular behavior. If your anxiety makes you less productive, how did that feel?
Over time, Dr. Brewer suggests our brains naturally become less “rewarded” with our anxiety habits without using so much willpower. This then frees up space in our brains for new habits.
Step 3: Build new habits
Now that we learn how to map out anxiety habits and tap into the brain’s reward system, it’s time to create new habits. This is an opportunity to explore mindfulness-related behaviors that break the cycle of our anxiety habits.
Besides steps one and two, Dr. Brewer suggests a variety of tools that you can insert into your habit loops when you recognize a trigger:
- Curiosity: Curiosity and compassion feel better than self-judgment and can help us learn from our experiences. Dr. Brewer recommends asking questions out loud and bringing an attitude of curiosity to any trigger so we can explore how our minds work from a place of comfort, not fear.
- RAIN: This is a mindfulness practice that involves Recognizing your internal experiences; Allowing the experience to be there as it is; Investigating with curiosity your bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts; and Note what is happening.
- Breathing: Some breathing exercises can help promote calm and resilience. One study by Yale University found breath meditation could normalize anxiety levels after just one week of daily practice.
- Body scan: A daily body scan practice may reduce mental and physical stress levels. The body scan meditation involves paying attention to bodily sensations, including tension or tightness. As you scan these sensations, take a second to breathe and focus on reassuring thoughts that can bring you comfort.
- Loving-kindness: A loving-kindness meditation involves repeating mantras and directing caring thoughts toward people we love, including ourselves. Use this opportunity to speak kindly to yourself, not judging your habits or emotions so harshly. The idea is that by tapping into gratefulness and compassion, we can lower our stress levels.
Like any habit, new ones need to be reinforced. Dr. Brewer suggests using the same techniques from step two – using the brain’s reward system – but this time, instead of focusing on the unhelpful results, you focus on how good curiosity makes you feel.
The Unwinding Anxiety program
Unwinding Anxiety is a step-by-step program based on clinically-validated guided sessions designed to help reduce anxiety and increase your overall well-being. Each short video session will teach you more about working with your mind.
Good things are coming your way. Research on the Unwinding Anxiety program shows a 67% reduction in anxiety after three months in a study of anxious physicians. With consistent practice, one day at a time, you can find relief from anxiety.
Change your relationship with anxiety and learn how to break anxiety habits. The Unwinding Anxiety program has practical resources to help change your relationship with anxiety. In this program, you’ll get:
- Mindfulness training sessions clinically validated to reduce stress and anxiety
- Daily short videos and audio exercises to guide you through your journey
- Fully customizable exercises to help you control your anxiety
Most importantly, the program is designed to help you learn how to work with your mind. Try the first four modules free to see if our program is right for you. Sign up for a free trial and start feeling less anxious and more like you.
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Lee, S. J., Lodder, B., Chen, Y., et al. (2020). Cell-type-specific asynchronous modulation of PKA by dopamine in learning.
Emma M., Bradley Christina, Moeller Julia, et al.(2020). Promoting Mental Health and Psychological Thriving in University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Three Well-Being Interventions.Schultchen, D., Messner, M., Karabatsiakis, A. et al. Effects of an 8-Week Body Scan Intervention on Individually Perceived Psychological Stress and Related Steroid Hormones in Hair.