Dismantling the Anxiety Habit

anxiety embodiment habit worry Apr 08, 2021

The skill of mindfulness allows you to "map" the habit loop of anxiety to determine how it feels in your body and what reward you might be getting, or not getting, from worry.

In his new book, Unwinding Anxiety, Professor of Psychiatry, and Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University, Dr. Judson Brewer lays out a method, grounded firmly in mindfulness, for interrupting anxiety. The first step he calls “mind mapping”.

Your amazing brain is designed to ensure your survival. Some emotions that feel unpleasant are actually quite adaptive and helpful in keeping you safe. Fear is a prime example. Imagine you are hiking in the woods and you hear a rustling in the nearby brush. A primitive part of your brain generates the adaptive emotion of fear, promptly focusing your attention on the potential danger, and instantly activating your resources for making potential lifesaving moves. So, in this sense, fear is good.

Your brain rumbles for more information in the face of uncertainty.

But what if the feeling of fear is activated by a thought or a sensation in your body? A less primitive part of your brain, the neocortex, is responsible for thinking and planning. In order to think and plan, your neocortex needs information. But what happens when there is an absence of information, or incomplete information? What does your neocortex do in the face of uncertainty? Just like your tummy growls when you are hungry, saying “give me food”, your neocortex starts rumbling for more information in the face of uncertainty. This often results in your mind spinning “what if” scenarios. Say, for example, your spouse is late arriving home from work, your neocortex starts spinning out “what if” possibilities – “What if he was in an accident? “What if she had car trouble?” “What if something terrible is happening?”

This rumbling of your neocortex is also known as worry. It is a mental behavior that can become a habit, because it gives you a deceptive reward. This misleading sense of “reward” may be a sense of being productive, of staying engaged, of doing something in the face of uncertainty. We get satisfaction out of the feeling of being busy.

The false sense of “doing something” gives your brain the reward it craves.

You may be assuming that being busy with worry is accomplishing something. This false sense of feeling productive may, in the short term, give your brain the “reward” it craves. But the habit of worry, if you check-in with yourself in an embodied way, actually gives you very little if anything useful. In fact, worry not only diminishes performance, it also prevents your brain from doing something that might actually be adaptive and helpful in the moment. But, nonetheless, because of that phony reward, your brain continues to engage in the habitual mental behavior of worry in the face of uncertainty.

The cycle of worry was probably set up a long time ago and your brain just keeps engaging in it because it keeps feeling that false sense of reward produced by “doing something”. It is a habit. This is what we know as anxiety. Brewer advises that you start to dismantle the worry habit by “mapping” it or inquiring into it on the spot, using mindfulness. The key, he says is to stay embodied. Keep your focus on your physical sensations as you get curious and explore what’s happening. Ask yourself:

  1. How is this worry making me feel in this moment?
  2. What reward am I getting from this worry?” (Is it a feeling of control? Of “doing something”? A sense that I’m problem solving?)
  3. What triggered this worry?

Some things are just unpleasant, but suffering is optional.

Now, some of you might say, “But my gut-wrenching anxiety provokes me to do unpleasant things that need to be done.” For example, your taxes.  You may think, “Without my anxiety, I might never do my taxes!” In this scenario Brewer asks you to honestly inquire into which feels less unpleasant, and therefore more rewarding: A. the building pressure cooker of anxious procrastination and worrying or B. getting your taxes done earlier? Some things are unpleasant no matter how you slice it, but suffering is optional. You want to find out at what point does the unpleasantness turn into suffering for you? Brewer says ask yourself “How much suffering needs to be present in order for me to tackle my taxes, and is there an alternative?” Once your brain recognizes, in your direct experience, the “reward” of choosing the option that produces less suffering (getting your taxes done sooner), then your brain will naturally default toward the more rewarding course of action. Yes, doing the taxes is still unpleasant, but with this option there is less suffering and hence more reward for your brain.

What is this worry getting me?

When you engage in “mind mapping” into your anxiety, it is important to be clear in your terminology. When you use the term “worry” you may be using it as a noun to describe a feeling, a physical sensation, or an emotion. But worry is also a verb. It is a mental behavior. It is the behavior of engaging in worried thoughts.

In mind mapping, you want to try to find out what reward you are you getting from worrying. This is important, says Brewer, because how rewarding the mental behavior is perceived or assumed to be is what keeps the cycle of anxiety spinning.

One reward from the behavior of worry (the verb) is that it makes you feel like you are protecting against the danger that the feeling of worry (the noun) is warning of. We think the worrying behavior is helping, but actually it is just making it harder for us to think, plan, and protect ourselves.

We also want to be clear on the difference between worry and fear. Worry is oriented toward the future. Brewer describes it as the “slow burn” that’s constantly churning. Fear, on the other hand, happens quickly. It is concerned with the immediate moment. “What’s that rustling in the brush? Run!” Fear is adaptive, worry is not.

Keep it embodied.

The key to ascertaining what your “reward” for worrying may be, says Brewer, is to keep it embodied. Ask “What am I getting from this as a physical experience?” By keeping your inquiry into the sensations in your body, you avoid the trap of analysis. It is very easy to spin out into why something is happening. This will only lead to more rumbling for information and more worried thoughts. Learning how to “be with” the uncomfortable sensations of worry, long enough to inquire into the experience in your body, without having to immediately “figure it out”, is a big positive step. With this mind mapping inquiry, you are collecting data from the internal laboratory of your own embodied experience.

Becoming disenchanted with worry.

Chances are, when you ask “What reward am I getting from this worry?”the answer is probably “not much”. But the key is to engage in this embodied inquiry so you can see and feel this truth in your own direct experience. When you directly see for yourself that worry is not getting you anything, then disenchantment begins to build. This direct experience of disenchantment is the precursor to unwinding the worry habit. By feeling the disenchantment directly, in your own body and mind, you are training your brain to seek a better reward.

I worry because I care.

Notice if you are conflating “worry” with “care. It is very easy to believe the idea “I worry because I care.” So, when your spouse is late arriving home from work, you may believe you are worrying because you care about your spouse. But Brewer suggests asking yourself if, when your spouse isn’t late and there is no reason to worry, is the care still there? If you check you will hopefully find the answer is yes. What this means is that worry and care are in fact separable, and worry is something that you are adding to the care. He suggests, in those instances where there is care for someone without worry, to explore your embodied experience of care: “Care feels like this.” Then, when you find yourself worried about someone you also care about, to drop in on the feeling of worry. “Worry feels like this.” Then you can ask yourself “Which one feels better?” With practice, you will be able to distinguish between your felt sense of worry and your embodied experience of care.

Self-judgment often comes with anxiety.

Many people who experience anxiety also feel self-judgment about it. Self-judgment can become its own habit loop circling around the anxiety habit loop. You judge yourself for worrying, then you judge yourself for judging. Here, Brewer suggests bringing mindful awareness to what’s happening, and noticing whether this slows down the spinning a bit. Then, it becomes easier to do the mind mapping into the habit loop of anxiety separately from the habit loop of self-judgment: How does this feel? What is this getting me? What triggered this?

Meditation is a tried-and-true practice for training your mind.

Mind mapping into the habit loop of anxiety requires the skill of mindfulness, dropping into the felt sense of your present moment experience when you are worrying. Meditation is a tried-and-true practice for training your mind to pause long enough to inquire into your present moment experience, even an unpleasant one like anxiety, to collect some data about yourself. This simple but profound skill of mindfulness leads to a priceless gift: knowledge of how your mind works. When you can see and be with your own direct experience, then you can learn how your habit loop of worry feeds into, reinforces, and perpetuates itself . By inserting your embodied mindful attention into the loop of anxiety, you become more aware of what it is - and isn’t -  getting you. Then, you build your ability to switch gears and reinforce those behaviors that feel better and are much more helpful.

Madeline Ebelini is a former stressed-out lawyer turned certified mindfulness instructor with a mission of helping people reduce stress through teaching them practical and effective mindfulness techniques. She teaches the 5-star reviewed online course Mindfulness For Stress Relief, and leads a weekly live online meditation group Remember to Breathe. Register for her free webinar Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief.


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