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Anxiety as a manifestation of habit

Constant worry, nervousness, negative and distorted thinking, trouble concentrating & irritability, heart palpitations, and excessive sweating. Sounds familiar? These are symptoms of anxiety that you might carry insight into and manifest in those symptoms. We feel spells of anxiety sometimes when experiencing complex events in our lives. A job loss, death or separation from loved ones, a constant reason to worry about, or any other harrowing life events interfere with our ability to lead an everyday life and make us restless and uncomfortable.

Anxiety is more common than one might believe. To put it into perspective, 18% of all Americans and 17% of all in the UK are diagnosed with anxiety disorders yearly. The good thing is that anxiety is easily treatable; however, only 37% of people receive treatment. There are a variety of factors that could lead to an anxiety disorder. From genetics to brain chemistry, personality or life events we go through play an impactful role in the development.


Still, today I want to talk to you about how you can also develop anxiety disorders as a manifestation of negative habits.

Jud Brewer, MD, Ph.D., an addiction psychiatrist, scientific researcher, and expert in mindfulness training, in his book “Unwinding Anxiety,” talks about anxiety from a different perspective than other experts. He focuses on anxiety as a self-perpetual habit and a reaction to perceived stress.
What defines a habit? A habit makes our lives easy with Autopilot mode! A habit requires little or no thought and is learned. The more we repeat it, the more it gets reinforced. All loops start with three components: 

External or Internal stimulus
Our reaction behavior to the stimulus

The stimuli act as a trigger for our brain and tell us to switch to autopilot, leading to unconscious action. This is an energy-saving technique to facilitate our lives. But it is not always good to switch to autopilot because we could also have negative tendencies. Those  negative tendencies could turn into a harmful habits. So can anxiety be a result of a harmful habit? Yes!

After repeating and reinforcing the behavior and reward loop, we can develop many good or bad habits. The more we repeat, the stronger it gets. I would like to demonstrate two anxiety loops and use them as an example for you to reprogram your thinking when you feel anxious actively. 

The Run-of-the-Mill Anxiety gets triggered by feelings of anxiety. You watch a funny YouTube video or play a video game because you are anxious. This behavior would tell your brain that the temporary distraction of your anxiousness is the reward. Sadly, it does not work because you didn't work through your anxious feelings and just procrastinated. The moment you stop your distraction, the feelings will creep back or even return more strongly.

The second one would be the Anxiety-Worry Loop, which, as you guessed, also gets triggered by anxiety. Typical behavior would be worrying about worst-case scenarios, reminiscing about past events with negative connotations, and stressing about the future in a negative light. The reward your mind gets is the feeling of being busy, preparing, and strategizing about certain situations. Nevertheless, it simply leads to a more substantial manifestation of anxiety and worry because one does not stop. 

Rest assured, there are certain things one could do to prevent these loops from happening.

Do not push away or hide from your feelings. 

Be kind to yourself and take the first step by recognizing what’s happening inside you.

Experience the sensations and ask yourself how you are feeling, just as it is.

Do not feel bad or guilty about yourself or consider yourself sick.

Note what you are experiencing.  

As you have done your “Anxiety mapping” exercise, start acting against your habit by giving a positive reward for overcoming it. Remember, these negative habit loops are not lifelong sentences you must carry along, but just habits you can re-do.

If you don't want to do this exercise on your own and prefer a coach by your side, you can try talking to me, Clare. I am your virtual mental-health phone coach, trained in cognitive behavioral therapy-based exercises and content focusing on anxiety symptoms. I’d be delighted to be by your side and company you on your journey.

Feel free to try Clare&Me the help for your self-help and be guided through exercises to help relieve anxiety symptoms.

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