Changing anxious habits
Changing anxious habits or behaviours can be very challenging. While many of us would prefer to seek instant solutions to break old habits, this can often lead to frustration and disappointment.
For one reason or another most of us have felt trapped in a pattern of anxious thinking and behaving that disrupts our progress. We may feel caught by our own impulses and defensive reactions to situations, or imprisoned by anxious thoughts and preoccupations. We are often our own worst enemies: making reckless decisions, poor choices or taking risks with our health and well-being. We may explode with anger at the slightest hint of difficulty, feel ensnared by memories of the past or spiral into cycles of shame and depression. We may feel powerless to change, but we recognise there must be a way.
Changing cycles of anxiety can sometimes seem like an impossible ask. But if you truly want to change old habits, or patterns of behaviour, you need to stand back from the problem and observe the process of habit formation. In order to create an effective strategy to counteract old habits, you need to identify the triggers, the ‘pay-off’ for negative behaviours and replace these old patterns with a new one. For example, if you often notice you use avoidant behaviours when you feel anxious about completing your tax returns, you may notice the instant ‘pay-off’ of relief you get from procrastinating or getting distracted by less demanding tasks such as housework, shuffling your CD collection, or washing the car.
Breaking old cycles of unwanted behaviours is all about developing awareness – observing how you respond to specific stimuli, as well as experiencing a mindful way of being in the present moment. This mindful strategy can be used effectively to track your impulses, routines and even addictions. Paying attention to the subtle sensations within your body and monitoring your emotions for feedback. For example, you may notice that excessive worrying before you lead a seminar at work activates your inner critic and screen-playing scenes of yourself being humiliated by stage fright in front of your work colleagues. You may also notice that you feel tightness around your chest and windpipe, your hands tremble, you perspire and you feel your heart palpitating.
Although some unwanted behaviours, especially those that create craving, are more difficult to break, with a little patience you can create the space and time to step back, slow down and deepen your self-awareness. You can learn to observe your process of habit formation by paying attention to the physical sensations and emotional stimuli that trigger impulsive behaviour, sensation-seeking, smoking, alcohol dependency, angry outbursts, phobias and avoidant behaviours.
Old habits are a learned response to specific stimuli. These habits are conditioned and reinforced when they are repeated again and again. The brain creates a well-worn neural pathway with a very strong signal that is hard to reverse, unless you give the brain a more attractive alternative. For example, if you reach out for a glass of beer every time you finish work to relieve your stress, then you have formed a habit – a dependency. Likewise, if you obsessively and repeatedly check the locks when you leave the house, you've also acquired a compulsive habit.
Some habits are helpful, but many can be disproportionate to the situation and are undesirable. So why do we continue with them? Some habits are hard to break because they provide an unexpected “pay-off” in the reward centres of our brain. This releases dopamine and locks us in to repetitive routines that may give us a brief rush of exhilaration, a surge of power or a feeling of alertness, as if we can predict and control our environment. Counteracting these powerful stimuli is difficult – they give the body and mind a reward system, even when these behaviours are harmful. So, if old habits are hard to break, then new habits can be just as hard to form. It takes time to lay down new tracks and build a corresponding sense of well-being that counteracts the old reward centres in the brain.
We need to build new connections and neural pathways, while repeatedly reactivating those pathways already laid down, to reinforce and embed them in the deep structures of our brain. This is because the patterns we repeat the most carry stronger emotional signals, firing a cascade of neurotransmitters that mobilise us for familiar modes of behaving and acting. Over time it is possible to break anxious habits and form new ones that are more rewarding and fulfilling.
Habit formation is a process of learning behaviours through repetitive actions in response to positive stimuli, until they become instinctive. These habits become part of our unconscious way of being. In behavioural psychology this is called conditioning; where the conditioned response is continually repeated until it becomes second nature.
Conditioning is much more effective when the habit formation process is associated with positive rewards. And this offers us a very simple but effective tool for understanding how to break anxious habits and replace them with new habits. So how does this process of habit formation work?
Identify anxious stimuli – you need to identify the triggers for anxiety and your response to it. While some sensory stimuli are triggered by external events or environmental conditions, other stimuli can be caused by physiological sensations of stress, traumatic memories or overthinking and excessive worrying. These stimuli switch the amygdala in our brain into a state of high alert which creates anxiety. For example, before driving your car on a long journey after a road accident, you notice the signs of a panic attack: breathlessness, dry mouth, heart palpitations, tension in the muscles and flashbacks.
Observe your emotional responses – you need to slow down and observe the emotional responses and repetitive patterns of behaviour that are associated with the habit-forming stimuli. For example, you may fear conflict with colleagues in the workplace; where you learn to side-step situations, avoid communication with your peers and end up making unnecessary mistakes. Then in anticipation of future events you screenplay scenes in your head and listen to your inner critic; associating internal stimuli in the sensory-motor cortex with a defensive behavioural response. Later on you develop avoidant behaviour embedded in the brain’s memory circuits, leading to a repetitive pattern of habit formation. The neural signals of habits are reinforced by reward centres in the brain, releasing dopamine to boost their strength. Once you identify the sensory stimuli associated with avoidance, you can become more aware of your patterns, develop a higher threshold of tolerance for anxiety and take immediate action.
What’s the pay-off – you need to identify the ‘pay-off’ for anxious patterns of behaviour which you have associated with the habit as a reward. These pay-offs may be sensory, emotional, psychological, or material rewards which induce pleasure. For example, if you crave going for a smoke at lunch time, the obvious pay-off is the rush of nicotine and dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. You may also be rewarded by escaping the four walls of the office, breathing-in ‘fresh air’, chatting to friends, or a feeling of relief and mischief at evading your line manager. This awareness helps you break old habits at source.
Replacing old habits, with new ones – if you are going to be successful in breaking old habits, you need to form new habits with a positive reward to counteract it. For examples, your appetite for intense sensations – such as alcohol or drugs - is rarely satisfied by abstinence alone, as it leaves a craving gap. So as you form new habits, try to ensure you fill the ‘craving-gap’ with a set of counter-rewards aimed at satisfying, a long-term sense of wellbeing, rather than immediate gratification. This helps you build more sustainable neural pathways for learning new habits.
Nudge towards change – habit formation is an incremental process which is often conditioned and reinforced over a long-term period. As a result you need time and space to learn new habits, which involves experimenting by trial-and-error, an ability to tolerate adversity and learning from your mistakes. If you get to frustrated or judgemental with yourself, you will not develop the incentive to learn. Try developing new habits with a sense of curiosity, playfulness and experimentation. Put time aside to observe what you learn and enjoy the process of habit-forming, rather than immersing yourself in a painful learning curve. This means nudging yourself towards change; not putting yourself under immense pressure to achieve results with unrealistic expectations.