Unwinding Anxiety – Part Two

January 6, 2023 by

By Cawood Fitzhugh

 “Most of the shadows of this life are caused by our standing in our own sunshine.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

 Understanding the Habit Loop and How We Feed It

 The definition of anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Where does anxiety come from?  Without even knowing it we may be feeding it or making it worse in attempts to make ourselves feel better.  We mentioned “feeds” in last month’s Musing, the endless activities that can consume our time and attention.

 Feed binging is just one way we may be playing into our anxiety. There is nothing wrong with the feeds depending on but how we are in relationship to them. However, this relationship may be making our anxiety worse.  Because anxiety is at an all-time high, it is worth considering.

 The iPhone was designed after a casino, with all the bells and whistles to keep our attention.  It activates our sympathetic nervous system, the flight, fight or freeze system in the body.  You get that nice hit on your Instagram and your phone “bings”.  Someone “likes” you.  This feels good and now you want to post again. You may think, I want to feel good right now, I’m going to post something, and I’ll feel better. This repeated behavior begins to lay down a habit.  Post- get a bing- feel better.

 But what if no one responds? This is unlikely, but let’s pretend no one responds to your post. How does this feel?  Not having an expected outcome?  Maybe worry comes in, “Did anyone see my post?”  “Am I being ghosted?” This progresses to “Something’s wrong?” and then “What’s wrong with me?”  “I’m no good?” “Does anyone care?” The mind fill in the gaps. At this point you want to get rid of that unpleasant feeling.  You may go eat a donut, drink a beer, smoke a cigarette, get absorbed in video games. You do something/anything to feel better.  The more you do this behavior when you’re feeling bad, the more you lay down this pattern. 

Anxiety is so common it is considered a habit all its own.  Here’s the neuroscience of an Anxiety Habit Loop. Something happens in your life, it could be good or bad, it’s called the “Trigger”.  When it feels good, you want to repeat it. The brain says “That feels good, do that some more.” The brain lays down a memory and you start to associate that behavior with feeling good. When you want to feel good, you just repeat this behavior. Trigger-behavior-reward. Trigger- post on Instagram; Behavior- get the “like”; Reward- feels good.

 This happens for negative emotions as well. Have you ever just thought how far behind you are at work, or perhaps beat yourself up if you made a mistake?  How does this feel? Not so good. Just like we want to repeat the good feelings, we want the bad feelings to go away. This too, lays down a memory.  When this happens, we get triggered by that thought or emotion like being behind at work, and we start to feel weighted down. Then we go and distract ourselves on our feeds (social media, food, cigarettes, alcohol, TV)- reward- relief.  This, too, lays down a memory: when you feel stressed or anxious, distract yourself and you’ll feel better.  The more we do this- get anxious, distract ourselves, feel better- the more this becomes a habit.

But does this really help us to feel better?  Perhaps yes in the short term but did the work get done?  Did the overall anxiety go away?  After getting lost in our feeds, we now have lost much needed time for our work and are behind even more.  We can feel more anxious.  Anxiety can even feed on anxiety. You have a lot of work to do, you feel anxious, you distract yourself and now you are worrying.  The more you worry about the misuse of time and the load of work, the more you feel anxious. This becomes another habit loop. 

 A mindfulness tool to interrupt this cycle is to move from paying attention to these thoughts into awareness of the body, noting where you feel the anxiety.  This helps create a circuit breaker for all those worry thoughts by shifting the attention to the body. This will work for mild anxiety. However, if you are moving towards a panic attack, it’s probably best to focus on something outside of the body at that moment, like a color, a picture, wiggling your toes, until you are more calm.  With mild anxiety, it can be helpful to just notice where in the body you feel the anxiety.  When doing this, you may notice it shifts and changes. Just naming “I’m feeling some anxiousness” can help soften some of its hold. 

When you have the urge to check your Instagram or play that video game-before you automatically grab your phone- try pausing for a moment and asking yourself, “What do I feel in my body right now?”  Head, shoulders, back? Name the sensations- tightness? pressure? restlessness? clenching? Become curious about how intense they are from 1 -10, with 10 being the most intense. Take a moment to feel into this sensation, explore it with some curiosity, noting if it is greater on the right side or left side.  After scanning the body and locating where you feel any tension, slowly breathe into the edges of these sensations three times, inviting some softening.  Then proceed with your feed.  

 Experiment with this the next time you want to grab your phone. Practice pausing, noticing what’s here for you under the surface, taking a deep breath and then proceeding.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings