How to Break the Habit of Anxiety

Anxiety is a Habit

Did you know that anxiety is actually a habit? In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Judson Brewer, author of “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind,” explains that we as humans have “survival brains.” Essentially, our brain is designed to help us avoid danger or uncomfortable situations. When we begin to feel anxious, our brain signals us to do something to make that feeling go away. However, in our modern world, what we choose to do to help ease our anxiety creates unhealthy habits that actually create a vicious cycle of anxiety. 

To summarize Brewer’s explanation, habits are formed by a trigger or cue, a responding behavior, and then a repeat of this behavior. In this case, feelings of unpleasant anxiety is the trigger. The responding behavior can either be physical, such as scrolling social media, binge watching Netflix or snacking even when you aren’t hungry. The responding behavior could also be mental, in most cases this is worrying or stressing. These responding behaviors serve as a reward to your brain, so you are now more likely to repeat this process and create a habit.

Breaking the Habit

Brewer is also an addiction psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and associate professor at the Brown University School of Public Health. He states that in his profession over these last couple of years, he has seen this anxiety building habit on steroids due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What he has found, though, is that medication for anxiety is not the solution. Instead, it is beneficial for everyone to understand mental behaviors and learn how to work with their mind. Listed below is a three step process on how you can recognize when you’re you are creating a habit of anxiety and how to break it:

  • Notice the Habit Forming Loop: Worrying narrows your mind and actually blocks the problem solving area of your brain. This will cause you to feel like you are spiraling. So, if you feel overwhelmed and unable to come up with a solution, pause and take a step back. Or, if you catch yourself mindless scrolling social media, watching Netflix for hours, or keep getting up to grab snacks, pause and take a step back.
  • Evaluate Your Behavior: Do not simply tell yourself to stop performing the behavior, as that is not how change is created. Instead, ask yourself: How rewarding is this behavior? Does this behavior make me feel better? Does this solve my problem? Dig deep to discover the true answers.
  • Use the Power of Curiosity: Brewer cites James Stevens when he says, “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.” Re-approach your situation with curiosity instead of fear. Tell your mind that you are not in danger, you are simply in a new and unfamiliar situation and there is a way to navigate through it. This realization alone can help you get into a growth mindset and avoid the panic zone. It can also help you see very, very clearly that you are not actually comfortable in your anxiety habits.

The more you work on this three step process of breaking the habit of anxiety, the more natural it will feel. Soon, those triggers or cues that used to cause you anxiety will instead help you grow and problem solve, all while feeling calm and in control. For more information, visit Harvard Business Review!

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