You may be tired of hearing and reading repetitive tips about how to relax and reduce stress. In this case, it will be interesting for you to read the book “Calming Anxiety” by psychiatrist Judson Brewer. The main point of the author of the book is that just knowing the tips does not help to get rid of anxiety. In Anxiety Relief, Brewer proposes a three-step process based on his extensive research on habits. In the following, after defining the habit cycle, we will explain what it means to hide anxiety in daily habits, and we will state 3 steps to overcome anxiety and form new habits.
What is the habit cycle?
To better understand Brewer’s approach, it is best to first become familiar with the concept of habit loop and how habits are formed. The habit cycle is a framework for thinking about the formation and abandonment of habits. This cycle has three parts: clues, routine or behavior, reward.
Clues are stimuli that trigger habitual behavior. The clues that provoke routine behaviors or habits are very different and may take many forms. Tips usually fall into one of these categories:
- Current emotional state;
- The last action of the person.
For example, when you walk past your living room at work, the smell of tea makes you want to pour yourself a cup of tea. In this example, the clue could be your last resort (passing by the restroom and smelling the tea) or your location. However, if you did not walk past the living room, you would not smell tea.
Taking a siphon of the toilet is also a stimulus that causes you to wash your hands, or a nervous state can be a stimulus for behaviors that you do to relax yourself, such as chewing your nails or shaking your legs.
۲. Routine or repetitive behavior
Routine means the same habit or repetitive behavior. This behavior can be something you are fully aware of, such as turning off your desktop computer and getting up from behind your desk at 5pm. Some habits are less conscious, such as automatic chewing when you think about a difficult issue.
Automated habitual behaviors are usually performed, although you may have consciously decided to do them the first few times. Sample:
- “I’m tired, so I’m drinking a cup of tea.”
- “I’m bored, so I’m surfing social media.”
Over time, this routine becomes more involuntary and automatic, thanks to the last part of the reward cycle.
3. Reward or result of behavior
Reward is the result of that behavior for you. Rewards routine or repetitive behavior and helps maintain a habit.
Some rewards are to our advantage, such as brushing our teeth after breakfast, making our mouths clean and fragrant, and the reward of texting your spouse on late-night nights is a better relationship with your spouse.
Unhealthy rewards reinforce habits you do not want to maintain, such as watching hours of YouTube videos. We all get caught up in such quiet and boring nights. When your brain makes a connection between a certain behavior and a reward (in this example, getting rid of boredom), you will have a strong desire for this behavior, even if you do not realize it yourself.
This is how every time you feel bored at night, you subconsciously watch YouTube videos. The Internet fills the hours before bed and the cycle of habit is formed.
3 steps to overcome anxiety and form new habits
1. Drawing anxiety habits
“If you’re anxious, you’ve probably become accustomed to it,” says Brewer. He explains that many of our habits are formed to help reduce stress or meet emotional needs, even if they do not benefit us in the long run.
As we said in the previous section, our habits occur in a cycle that consists of three parts: clues, repetitive behavior, and outcome or reward. For example:
- clue: We feel anxious.
- Behavior: We eat sweets.
- Result: We are distracted by anxiety.
Sometimes anxiety triggers a habit cycle, but it can also be the result of a habit cycle. For example:
- clue: Feeling motivated at work;
- Behavior: Reading the news;
- Result: Feeling anxious about the state of the world.
The most harmful state of anxiety-related habits is when the anxiety intensifies itself. For example:
- clue: Feeling anxious;
- Behavior: Worry (thinking about where things are wrong or may not go right);
- Result: Feeling more anxious.
What rewards can we get from the self-perpetuating cycle of anxiety? Brewer explains that sometimes worrying can feel good, or at least better than just feeling anxious. Sometimes (rarely) worries allow us to find a solution, and this makes our worries seem constructive and productive because we think we are doing something to solve problems.
Some of us are afraid that if we are not worried, we are not ready for the future. Anxiety makes us feel in control of the situation, even when we only feel and review the same fears over and over again.
In one of Brewer’s studies, awareness of the worrying habit cycle reduced anxiety and reduced burnout and physicians’ pessimism. Of course, drawing habits is only the first step.
۲. Strengthen the brain reward system
Brower explains that our brains store a “reward value” for the different people, places, and things we encounter. The higher the behavioral reward value to the brain, the stronger the habit.
Of course, the value of the reward can be distorted or outdated, for example, you may have had a strong desire to eat cake when you were a teenager when you were anxious, but in adulthood you feel like you may go into a sugar coma after eating 3 slices of cake.
“The only lasting way to change a habit is to update its reward value,” says Brewer. It means taking a fresh look at how a habit affects us in the moment. We need to do this every time we do that habit in our daily lives so that our brain updates the value of its reward and is no longer drawn to that habit.
So what does this mean in practice?
Once you have identified the habits that amplify anxiety, you need to be aware of those habits that occur. If you are anxious and start thinking and worrying about the future, keep this in mind; Notice the heaviness of your chest, the hatred in your throat, and the lack of work in your area. The good thing about this approach is that the moments of anxiety become an opportunity to become more aware of ourselves.
If it is difficult for you to be aware of habits at the time they occur, you can look at the past day or week to see the effects of specific behaviors. How would you feel if you were anxious to talk to your spouse angrily? Instead of analyzing, just try to experience that feeling in your body again.
“Over time, the brain naturally becomes discouraged and frustrated by our anxious habits, without much willpower,” says Brewer. As a result, more space is created for the formation of new habits.
3. Develop new habits
At this stage, we form the healthy habits and behaviors that we want to have, but until our brain abandons the old behaviors, there will not be much room for these new behaviors.
Brewer suggests a variety of mindfulness behaviors that you can incorporate into your habit cycle when a clue is created, many of which you may be familiar with. These behaviors include:
- Curiosity and mindfulness: Instead of blaming yourself for being anxious or drowning in the thought of where your anxiety came from, just be curious. How does this anxiety feel? How does it change? Brewer even advises us to say “home” out loud to arouse curiosity.
- Breathing: When you are anxious, take a deep breath and exhale to let go of the anxiety and notice the change in posture.
- RAIN Exercise: It is a kind of mindfulness exercise in which you recognize the present moment (Recognize) and relax in it; You accept it (Accept) and let it be; Examine your senses, emotions, and physical thoughts (Investigate); You pay attention (Note) what is happening.
- attention: It is an exercise involving the recording of experiences that are momentarily dominant in our minds, including each of our senses (hearing, touch, sight), thinking, or feeling.
- Love and kindness: Kind and loving thoughts about others (as well as about yourself) and feeling the warmth in your body.
Brower explains that you can use second-step techniques to reinforce these habits, except that this time, instead of seeing the harmful effects, you see a good feeling that arouses curiosity or affectionate feelings in your body.
Brewer is a habit expert and most of his research is on smoking and eating disorders. His views explain why many of our good decisions about exercise, meditation, and other useful activities do not work.
Habits can not be easily set aside, because these habits create a sense of reward and our brain absorbs them. Brewer believes that before we can change anything, we need to spend time observing anxiety-related habits. Only then can we take steps to form new habits by showing our habits that they are unrelenting. Browser’s approach, while simple, is so different that you feel it will really work.