Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Minby Judson Brewer
Despite hundreds of tips, tricks and mental gymnastics available today, people seem to be more anxious than ever. Why do the common ways to combat worries and bad habits not seem to work in the long run?
“Unwinding Anxiety” helps us deal with our anxieties using a systematic 3-gear approach. It covers the link between anxiety, self-doubt and negative habits, which many struggle to fight. It tells us what we can do differently to finally free ourselves from crippling anxiety that limits our potential so we may enjoy more happiness and abundance in our lives.
What Causes Anxiety
“Anxiety doesn’t just come out of the blue. It is born.”
Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” With the rising level of uncertainty in the quick-changing world we're living in, anxiety can hit us in any place, situation or time of day.
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) in the human brain helps us think and plan for the future. It achieves this by using past experiences to predict what will happen next. However, it needs accurate information to analyze. When the information is lacking, for example, due to fake news or hectic modern life, your brain will play out different versions of what might happen. This creates multiple scenarios, promotes doubt and induces fear.
Fear results from a tendency to assume that out of all the possible scenarios imagined, the worst ones are most likely to happen. The less information we have, the more likely we’ll gravitate towards worrying about the worst-case scenario. Basically, fear + uncertainty = anxiety.
Too much anxiety can contribute to panic, which is linked to impulsive and dangerous behaviors, ultimately leading to mental, physical and long-term health consequences.
To stop or at least minimize the impact of the anxiety cycle, we must remember that uncertainty triggers anxiety. Once we are aware that what we’re experiencing is really our survival brain playing games with us, we can try to put ourselves at ease and control our anxiety before it takes control over us.
Actions to take
Habits And Everyday Addictions
“Definition of addiction: “continued use despite adverse consequences.”
Addictions are not limited to the use of chemicals like nicotine, alcohol or heroin. Continued use despite adverse consequences can relate to just about anything and even involve what we initially thought was harmless.
If you asked your friends and yourself, you’d find addictions everywhere: continued shopping despite adverse consequences; continued computer gaming despite adverse consequences; continued social media checking despite adverse consequences, and so on. Addictions are everywhere, but are they an old or new problem? The answer is both.
The modern world is creating more addictive experiences than ever, from social media apps specifically designed to keep you swiping down to news headlines that are now usually phrased as questions or partial answers. Another addiction maximizer is immediate availability - just like Amazon Prime packages, we expect to get the information immediately, and any delay causes our brains to worry and produce anxiety.
When we combine these new issues with the old ones - our reward-based learning system that’s hardwired into our brains - we get a dangerous self-perpetuating formula for modern-day habits and addictions.
Actions to take
Anxiety Habit Loop
“There’s plenty of research showing that anxiety gets perpetuated as a negatively reinforced habit loop.”
When we experience uncertainty, we get anxious and start thinking we need to “do something”. Stress and anxiety set our brains on a mission to find a solution to our perceived problem. If we find it, we get the reward of feeling less anxious. Otherwise, worry, stress and fall into anxiety even more.
To better understand the role of habits in anxiety, it’s good to break the problem down into 3 pieces called TBR: Trigger, Behavior and Result.
For example, worrying almost always results in anxiety, and on top of this, the feeling of anxiety can also trigger the behavior of more worrying, which becomes cyclical.
Result: Feel more anxious
Now, we need to remember that if worry is triggered by anxiety alone, there might not even be something specific to worry about. In fact, many people describe waking up in the morning, and without any provocation or specific event that day or in the future to worry about, they feel anxious.
Actions to take
Map Your Mind - 1st Gear
“First gear is all about recognizing our habit loops and seeing the different components clearly: trigger, behavior, and reward.”
The first step to unwinding anxiety is to understand the behaviors behind it. You’ll do so by breaking it down into negative habits and addictions. For example, many people struggle with anxiety which translates into procrastination-type behavior. The first step to unwinding it is to map out this habit using the TBR method:
Trigger: Anxiety in the morning from seeing how much work a person has to do
What’s important to understand here is that the “reward” in negative habit loops is almost always extremely short-term, and in this example, would result in even more work needed to be done the next day. To unwind your anxiety, you need to see that those short-term rewards are not helping you - they only make your situation worse.
Actions to take
Why Do Most Anti-Anxiety (And Anti-Habit) Strategies Fail
“Our brains are set up to form habits so we can free up the brain space to learn new things.”
Let’s discuss some strategies that have been commonly used to try to combat anxiety but usually failed miserably.
Willpower. The problem of relying on willpower is that it may work in the short term but is unreliable in the long run. Buckling down and forcing yourself to “just do it” can only work sometimes. Also, willpower may be a fine tactic in normal conditions, but when you get stressed, your old survival brain takes control and makes things much more challenging.
Substitution. If you have a craving for X, do Y instead, right? Wrong. This may work for some people, but the problem is that even though you may switch cigarettes for candy, the habit loop stays intact. And unfortunately, when the habit loop remains, it’s very likely you’ll eventually fall back into the old habit, such as smoking.
Prime your environment. If you’re tempted by ice cream, don’t keep cartons of it in the freezer. While this may limit your ice cream intake, it won’t work for limiting your anxiety. Anxiety isn’t stored in the freezer or kitchen drawers and has many different ways of finding its way to your brain.
Actions to take
Update Your Behavior’s Reward Value - 2nd Gear
“When you have identified and mapped out your habit loops (...) ask yourself this simple question: What do I get from this behavior?”
New habits are learned based on how rewarding they are. Our brains set up a hierarchy of behaviors based on their reward value. The behavior with the bigger reward is the one our brains choose and the one we act out.
To change a behavior, you can’t just focus on the behavior itself. Instead, you have to address the felt experience of its rewards. The only sustainable way to change a habit is to update its reward value. This is called reward-based learning.
How do you update reward values and break anxiety, procrastination and other bad habits? The key is awareness. You need to give your brain new information to establish that the value it had learned in the past is now outdated.
For example, many people begin to smoke in high school when it seems cool and rebellious. They codify that reward value into their brain and continue to smoke for many years later because it felt good when they first started.
To break this particular habit, one would have to see how (un)rewarding smoking is right then and there. When they do this consciously, most notice the actual lack of reward. They bring awareness to the table and often notice that smoking smells and tastes awful.
Actions to take
Find a Bigger, Better Offer For Your Brain - 3rd Gear
“You need to find a reward that is more rewarding and doesn’t feed the habit loop through mere substitution of a different behavior.”
To replace an old habit, you need to find the BBO - “Bigger, Better Offer” for your brain. What’s that? Let’s look again at an example about one of the most common bad habits: smoking.
Becoming clearly aware that smoking doesn’t taste good reduces the reward value of smoking cigarettes, but even if you stop smoking during your work breaks, you still likely hang out outside with colleagues. If that habit continues, you may become bored and restless. That’s why many people substitute cigarettes for candies - their habit of going outside for “cigarette break” remains. However, this is exactly what leads to the average fifteen-pound weight gain that comes with quitting smoking. Similar negative consequences can take place whenever your habit isn’t completely broken.
Instead, you need to find a Bigger, Better Offer that doesn’t feed the existing habit loop. One such offer can be practising mindfulness. It can give you more satisfying rewards without the baggage of feeding the old habit loop.
Mindfulness basically means curiosity. Using mindful curiosity for habit change and learning can bring great results by helping you step out of your old habit loop. That’s because it’s practical and always ready for you to use when needed and, most importantly, doesn’t reinforce the old habit loop (as substituting cigarettes for candies would do).
Actions to take
3rd Gear Continued - RAIN Method
“Rain builds on the curiosity practice that you’ve already learned.”
RAIN is an acronym that helps you stay present so that you don’t freak out when an anxiety habit loop hits:
R - Recognize/Relax into what is arising (e.g. your craving to smoke or binge eat).
A - Accept/Allow it to be there.
I - Investigate bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
N - Note what is happening from moment to moment.
Actions to take
3rd Gear Continued - Loving Kindness
“Loving kindness (...) is based on a genuine well-wishing that we offer to ourselves and others”
Loving Kindness practice can help you start to accept others and yourself as you are. This helps let go of what has happened in the past and learn from it, instead of beating yourself up over it, as it often happens for people that struggle with anxiety.
There are 3 parts to the Loving Kindness practice:
The use of phrases to help you stay centered
Seeing the image of the being to whom you are sending Loving Kindness
Recognizing a feeling of kindness that arises in your body as you do the practice
To better show why this method works, it’s good to think about the situation that made you stressed or anxious recently. Notice how it feels in your body, the sensations it creates. Now imagine a dear friend of yours coming through the door - someone you maybe haven't seen in a long time. What does it feel like? Notice the difference between how this “meeting” felt in your body versus how the stressful experience did.
Actions to take
The “Why” Doesn’t Matter
“Amy had gone down the rabbit hole of why. She was desperately trying to figure out why she was anxious, thinking that when she got the answer, she could fix it and her anxiety would go away.”
You may feel tempted to try to figure out the original “why” behind your anxiety. Don’t. In the process of searching for “why”, what most often happens is we get caught up in the new destructive habit loop that goes like this:
Behavior: Trying to figure out the original “why” behind your anxiety
Results: Get more anxious
It doesn’t matter what triggers worry or anxiety. The only thing that matters is how you react to it. Searching for the "why" adds fuel to anxiety fire without getting you any closer to the solution.
We all get caught up in mechanic mode from time to time, thinking our brains are like cars. We fixate on trying to understand and fix the past (like our childhood traumas), when the most effective way is to let go of the past and the urge to find the “why”. That’s why forgiveness - giving up hope of a better past - is the right and effective approach to unwind anxiety.