After we get a better understanding of how our minds work by mapping out our habit loops, the next step to befriending our anxiety and finding some degree of freedom is to start to get really curious about what we are getting from our anxious habit loops. We can use mindfulness to investigate the rewards of our anxious habit loops. What does the habit loop actually feel like in the body? In my last post on habit loops I talked about how unpleasant sensations like anxiety trigger us to do a behavior to get some relief (reward). We can go into our bodies to actually feel what this is like. What we start to see by being curious is that the anxious habit loops are actually not very rewarding, both in the short term and in the long term.
Here is a simple eating habit loop from my own life
Trigger- Behavior – Reward
Anxious craving to keep eating- eat second portion after I’m full- feel better
On the surface it seems like I am getting a nice reward, but what happens if I actually bring mindfulness to the process and get curious about the reward?
Often what I notice is that the food tastes good, but it doesn’t taste as good as I think it does. The reward value of how the food actually tastes gets skewed if I’m engaging in thinking habit loops with their own rewards at the same time. When I bring my awareness to the sensations of eating itself, I am able to update the reward value of the behavior of eating. The other thing I notice is that with each bite there is a little bit less pleasure. The rewards diminish the more I eat. This is all something that I can learn in the moment by being present to my experience.
Additionally, we can update the reward values of our behaviors over time. So later that night when I am paying attention to my body sensations and notice a pain and discomfort in my stomach that doesn’t feel so pleasant, I can remember that this feeling came from eating a large second portion after I was already full. As I continue to get more curious about the unpleasant sensations in my stomach, I am updating the reward value of the behavior of eating more. Not only was the behavior not as rewarding as I thought it was in the moment of eating, but it actually brought about unpleasant feelings hours later.
By bringing mindful awareness to the process of eating, both during the meal and hours later, I am training my brain to see the real results of the overeating behavior. In the last post I talked about how the brain creates habits based on which behaviors feel the best relative to other behaviors. So as I am updating the reward of overeating, other behaviors now seem more appealing in comparison.
At this stage the goal isn’t necessarily to change the habit right away. It’s more about coming to see the habit as it really is.
Now let’s look at updating the reward value of an anxiety habit loop where thinking is the behavior.
I worry about being late and grocery store being closed(anxiety)- I obsess over scenarios in my head about making it on time- I’m “doing something” and feel a little better
Addiction psychiatrist Jud Brewer likes to use the phrase “What am I getting from this?” to get curious about the real rewards of the habit loop. As Iinvestigate what I get from the obsessing I realize there is a lot of anxiety in my chest and constriction in my neck. The “rewards” are not really all that rewarding. The grocery store is still open, yet as I return to my car after shopping, I notice I’m still anxious and my mind seems a bit more active than usual. A couple of hours later as I’m getting ready for bed, my body still seems rather jittery and I realize I have not calmed down from the intense obsessing and needing to get to the grocery store before it closes.
The reality upon investigation is that this anxious thinking really didn’t feel so good in the moment and doesnt feel so good hours later. It also really didn’t affect whether I got to the store on time or not.
With mindfulness we become aware of our habit loops. We become aware of when we are caught doing habitual unskillful behaviors. The next step is to get curious about the rewards of these habits loops. By doing this we update the reward value of the anxiety habits and realize that they really are not so rewarding. In this stage we are still stuck completing the habit loops, but we are aware of the process and we are starting to see that these loops are not so great after all. The final step is to step out of the habit loop by offering our brains something more rewarding. It’s all about turning toward our difficult emotions and learning to befriend them with curiosity and care. It turns out this befriending is more rewarding than anxious thoughts or emotional eating.