Unwinding Anxiety – Part Three

January 12, 2023 by

By Cawood Fitzhugh

  Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” -Maya Angelou


Stop: Pause, notice what’s in the body in this moment

Take a breath: feel the breath as it flows throughout

 Observe all that’s here:  Stressed?  Angry?  Anxious? Bored?

 Proceed: after recognizing what shows up, knowing there’s freedom to choose.

 We’ve been talking about unknowingly feeding into our anxiety over the last two Musings. What “feeds” do we gravitate towards when feeling anxious?  There was an invitation for us to take a mindful moment before surfing our social media by pausing to collect some data before automatically engaging with Instagram, grabbing that candy bar, checking our email or twitter account. Pausing to notice what sensations are here in the body, where they are felt, and what thoughts or emotions are provoked before proceeding.  With this information we can ask ourselves, who’s in the driver seat, me, or my anxiety?

 Here’s a little science behind how this works.  It’s called operant conditioning or reward-based learning. Our minds set up habit loops based on the results of our actions. These results are interpreted by the brain as “rewards”. These rewards shape our behavior. With positive reinforcement, we learn to do more behaviors that make good feelings continue. With negative reinforcement, we learn to do behaviors to make the bad feelings go away. This positive and negative reinforcement together is known as reward based learning. Reward based learning is how our brains work.

 Sometimes this system gets hijacked by certain thought patterns that feed on themselves, creating behaviors in which this system breaks down and then anxiety can lead to more anxiety, even panic. An example is experiencing anxiety about performing well at work that leads to behaviors that make us feel better in the short run but do not support success in the long run, creating more anxiety.  So why is this?

 It’s known that our minds are not focused on our present moment experience for most of our waking hours. We find our thoughts centered around regretting things we’ve done in the past and/or caught up in constant worrying about the future. We usually are not paying attention to what’s happening right now.  When we are caught up in a story, we might discover we are distracting ourselves, trying to mindlessly numb ourselves to any of those thoughts that don’t feel good. This might be done by playing video games, stress eating or binge watching TV.   When we experience additional stress that increases negative thoughts, we gravitate towards those behaviors to make ourselves feel better and wonder now why we find ourselves caught up in a tight little ball of anxiety. We can begin to think something is wrong with us or find ourselves blaming others for our own anxiety. If we don’t know that we are fueling our own habit loops, we can just keep doing it over and over, feeling worse and worse.

 This is not our fault. None of us would purposely try to keep our anxiety going.  It’s just how our brains work. The brain is wired to try to make us feel better as quickly as possible by any means necessary. These quick fixes do feel good, and so we want to keep repeating them. The problem is, they don’t last.  Commercial enterprises understand this and market to us in such a way that we keep coming back for more, like with rolling episodes on TV.  If we are not aware, then one hour can turn into two or three hours, and then we are tired, have less sleep and are less on our game the next day. In our attempts to feel better we may be making our anxiety worse by engaging in activities that trip ourselves up.

 Paying attention to this moment with curiosity as to what truly can serve can help us better negotiate our futures. This is how we begin the process of unwinding our own anxiety through intentional present moment awareness.


Filed Under: Monthly Musings