The best model I have found for understanding how anxiety works is the simple reward based learning model from Dr. Jud Brewer at Brown university. Brewer is unique in that he is a trained psychiatrist and scientist and also has been practicing meditation for many years. I was fortunate enough to take a class based on his Unwinding Anxiety phone app with him a few years ago at the Center for Mindfulness at Umass Medical School. It provided some context to the mindfulness practices that I was already doing and helped to offer a model to complement what I was learning from my own direct experience.
According to Brewer, habits give our brains the mental space to learn new things. We learn something once and then we can do that behavior again without thinking about it. Reward based learning is simply the idea that we learn habits based on how rewarding a certain behavior is. A habit loop is made up of a trigger, behavior and reward. The reward releases dopamine which tells the brain to create a memory so that we can remember the trigger and the behavior to get the same reward in the future.
Mapping out some habit loops:
Brewer describes two habit loops that aided early humans:
Trigger-Behavior-Reward → hungry(trigger)-seek food(behavior)-eat food and feel good(reward)
Trigger-behavior-Reward → see tiger- run away-find safety and survive (feel better)
Habit loops around food and danger helped us to survive. The rewards of the pleasure of eating and the relief of safety served to lay down memories to help us remember where to find food and what areas to avoid that might be dangerous.
Today a lot has changed since our days on the plains of Africa, yet we are still carrying the same reward based learning system in our brains.
Let’s look at some habit loops that we might be familiar with today around stress and anxiety.
Distraction habit loop: Trigger-Behavior-Reward
Feel sad- eat a cookie to distract from sadness- feel instant pleasure (feel a little better)
Big deadline coming up (feel anxious about it)- surf the internet looking at sports scores- feel better
Avoidance habit loop:
Feel anxious about class presentation- make up excuse and miss class- feel less anxious (feel a bit better)
An anxiety habit loop starts when anxious thinking itself becomes the new behavior.
Anxiety habit loop:
Feel anxious over skipping class presentation- think about ways to avoid ever doing it- feel a little better.
The anxiety habit loop only makes us feel a little bit better, but the anxiety is still present. Now the brain remembers that thinking got us a reward. The anxiety triggers the brain to do the same behavior (thinking) to get a reward. And the vicious cycle has begun.
Here is an example OCD habit loop that I was caught in some years ago:
“Oh no maybe I left the stove on” triggers anxiety- I check stove burner to see if it’s on- I feel momentarily better
As the habit repeats itself I started to use OCD thoughts as the behavior:
“Did i really check the stove correctly?” (still anxious) -I mentally obsess over how I checked the stove and if it was sufficient- I feel a little bit better
The more we engage in these habit loops the more unconscious they become.
- In order to better understand how to free ourselves from these habit loops (which we will discuss in upcoming posts), it’s important to understand what it really is that’s keeping us caught in these habit loops. Why are the behaviors so compelling? The behaviors are so compelling because of the unpleasant physical sensations that are triggered in the body. Craving and anxiety don’t feel so good and our brains seek to do anything they can to get rid of these sensations. All of the obsessions (behaviors) I did over many decades were attempts by my mind to relieve the anxiety sensations (triggers) that it could not tolerate.
The first step in stepping out of our distraction or anxiety or any other habit loops is to become aware that we are caught in a habit loop. Mapping out our habit loops helps us to become aware of them. Here is one that I mapped out recently that often occurs when I am in a conversation with someone.
Thought comes into my mind of something I want to say (I have an anxious craving to say it)- I blurt it out- I feel better
Here I get relief from the craving to say the thought by simply blurting it out. This lays down a memory that I will get the reward of feeling better any time I blurt out a thought that comes into my head. This creates a very unhelpful and unpleasant habit loop that keeps me from truly listening to what another person is saying. The more I complete this habit loop the more discomfort there will be if I don’t complete the loop. If I try to not say the thing my mind wants to blurt out, then I will feel a lot of unpleasant feelings until I blurt it out. That’s how the habit loop works!
I encourage you to use this post to map out your own habit loops around anxiety or anything else in your life that you want to change.
In a follow up post I will discuss how we can use mindfulness and compassion to step out of these habit loops by updating the reward value in the present moment.
We start by realizing that what we are getting from these anxious habits loops isn’t really anything special and that there are more rewarding alternatives(hint:mindfulness and compassion)…