Habit Loops and Anxiety
Habit Loops, Worry and Anxiety
Neuroscientist Judson A. Brewer describes the Habit Loop as:
Trigger>Behaviour>Outcome (Reward or Relief)
Habit loops allow us to do things unconsciously, so we don't have to re-learn the same things every minute of every day. Like walking, or getting dressed. But sometimes they get us stuck, so that we stop learning, where learning and growing would be very helpful.
The way a habit loop is established is when something external (eg a situation) or internal (eg thoughts or emotions), either good or bad, triggers an urge to enact a certain behaviour. The behaviour might be scratching, nail-biting, scrolling social media, anxiousness/ anxious thoughts, eating delicious food, etc.
In an attempt to achieve relief from the burning desire of an urge, we enact behaviours without thinking. A simple example is scratching a mosquito bite.
But another example might be worrying about getting everything done.
These behaviours usually lead to short-term relief (or at least a result). For instance, the itching sensation is briefly soothed.
Or, in the second example, the worrying has the effect of feeling like we're problem-solving when overwhelmed by a huge list of tasks.
But in the long-term, these behaviours only lead to future enactment of the same behaviours. Which short-circuits any action that will lead to long-term relief or a desired outcome.
A mosquito bite left alone will eventually go away; much more quickly than if we aggravate it.
Worrying about getting everything done might feel like getting organised or holding yourself accountable, but more likely will cause procrastination and inaction: more worry.
Habits like self-soothing with junk food or scrolling the internet, or any unhelpful behaviour, can be viewed in the same way.
A negative habit loop can be established by seeking soothing distraction in response to anxious feelings, or laid down in the form of a continuous cycle of anxious thoughts and feelings like worry or rumination on the past.
In the former, the trigger might be an anxious feeling, or an upsetting situation. This spurns a desire to do something to distract ourselves - the behaviour. The outcome is temporary relief from anxiety. Unfortunately, the anxiety will just come back after the distraction is removed. Triggering a repeating loop, and habitual behaviour. Like the pleasure of eating chocolate biscuits wearing off, leading to eating more.
In the case of anxious worry or rumination, a single thought can be a trigger. Worry or rumination is an attempt to problem-solve as a way to get rid of the original thought by thinking. A behaviour that usually leads to an outcome of heightened anxiety and stress: a habitual loop constantly being reinforced.
What to do instead; how to break the loop: mind training.
The short answer is that habitual patterns you've developed can be changed with your own curiosity.
As soon as we become aware of a pattern, we gain an element of agency and choice. We can choose alternatives, even if just to delay the action before giving in.
Curiosity is the opposite of anxiety and rigidity. It's open and flexible. If you are curious and exploratory, it is unlikely that anxiety will coexist for very long, if at all.
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