If you suffer from anxiety symptoms or an anxiety disorder and would like to walk free of it, there are a number of things you first need to understand. Chief among them is to remember that, while walking free from anxiety is not complicated, it is not necessarily easy at first. This is because anxiety, like many other daily routines, is built upon emotional and mental habits (why anxiety is perpetuated). When you repeat any set of actions long enough, your mind eventually takes over and repeats the routine automatically. It does this as a means of creating a shortcut, so that you don’t have to think about it anymore, making you more efficient. This is good…right? Like not having to think about how to brush your teeth or how to drive a car or ride a bike or how to do your reports for work…you just do them.
Where you get into trouble, though, is when you have routines for things that are not so helpful, like constantly worrying about stuff you cannot control or always trying to please everyone, which is truly an impossible task. So, you wind up doing this “bad” habit without even thinking about it, which leads to the hopeless feeling that you have no control over the way you worry or that it is impossible to change it. Perhaps you even say, “That’s just how I am. I can’t help it.” Yes, this is how you are, but only based on a learned way of thinking and reacting to the world. So, if you have learned to be the way you are now, you can also learn a new way of thinking and acting and reacting emotionally.
Take a moment and do this simple experiment: cross your arms. Just cross them like you would normally cross your arms across your chest. Simple, right? One arm is on top of the other. Now uncross them and cross them the other way, with the opposite arm on top. Felt strange, didn’t it? You had to stop and think about it, right? This is because you’ve developed a particular way of crossing your arms and over time this corresponds to a neurological loop in the brain, or a “script” that tells you automatically how to cross your arms a particular way. And so, you do this without thinking and it “feels” right. But if you did it the other way long enough, then that way would feel right because you would have developed a different neurological loop that matched the new way of crossing your arms.
And this is how you change a mental habit like worrying or being anxious, just as you would in breaking habits generally. You stop the mental habit of worrying by interfering with it and start doing a new coping skill instead. And you keep doing the new activity long enough until it feels natural and becomes automatic, or in other words…a habit.
Think about the arm-crossing example again. Remember how awkward or uncomfortable it felt to cross them the “wrong” way? This is the signal that your brain gives you when it comes across something new. Because much of what you do is built upon these scripts or automatic ways of doing things, you are a super efficient information-processing machine. Most people will feel most comfortable when doing a routine task, which of course, means engaging in a habitual way of doing something. This is because the brain doesn’t have to process as much information, as there is no new information to address. So, when you try something different or have to do something new…guess what? The brain has to suddenly start paying attention! Since the action or information is new, the brain doesn’t yet know if it is a “good kind of new” or a “bad kind of new,” so it goes on high alert in order to investigate this novelty. And this is the uncomfortable, almost scared sensation that most people get when approaching something new. This is a normal reaction because the brain is recruiting a lot of the body’s resources to pay attention to this unexpected, novel event, because it may be dangerous or it may be specifically advantageous; either way, worthy of your attention.
So, how does this relate to anxiety and worry? Because the same “alerting” system that gets turned on when facing new tasks or situations, also gets put in high gear for people who suffer with anxiety. What this means is that your brain has come to tag many, many things as a “bad kind of new” and the measuring stick that your brain uses to dub a task or situation as new, thus as a possible threat, becomes extremely sensitive. So, for anxiety sufferers, any little thing that looks, smells or feels different can evoke this reaction. For example, let’s say you have a particular route you take when you drive to work. You always take this one particular path (habit). But then one day there is a traffic accident and you have to find a new route to work. For most people, this would be no big deal. For those who are prone to anxiety, it may be a really big deal! Just this small variation from routine can create a huge anxiety response because the brain has tagged this new information as “suspect” and “to be examined for danger.”
So, the question on the table, then, is how do you interrupt this process? How do you bring about change to an automatic response? There are several steps to this process and this will be the subject of the next few articles to follow. For now, though, I want you to be aware that the first step in the process is to bring your routine, your automatic behavior, back into conscious awareness. Until you become fully aware of what you are doing, you cannot hope to change it! For example, when you were first learning to drive, do you remember how overwhelming it was (gas vs. brake, put on the blinker, check the side mirrors, etc.)? It was all so overwhelming because it was a complex task and it was all new. So the brain was painstakingly aware of every one of those actions. But now, after years of driving, you can drive, talk on the phone, eat, talk to other passengers, plan your day, etc. Why? Because the complex, organized set of behaviors that represent the skill of driving has become largely automatic, or habitual.
Anxiety is indeed a habit…and one that can be changed, but you have to do that something else instead of your anxiety habit long enough to bring about the new, anxiety-free way of living.
See this article in Ezine: Why Anxiety: Understanding the Habit of Anxiety