One of the things that has some direct use for us who fight or have fought chronic anxiety and depression is the concept of a habit. (I’m taking today’s discussion in large part from a great book called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.) Specifically, we anxiety fighters have developed what could accurately be called a small set of nasty habits. By understanding the precise nature of a habit we can be more effective in shutting down our what if thinking and the reactions that come out of Flight or Fight from that thinking.

We all know what habits are, yes? I know I thought I did. I thought (until this book) that a habit is simply a behavior pattern that we are used to doing – one that we don’t think much about. If you had pressed me I might have added that habits have some payoff, historic or current – something that helps keep us doing them, even if it isn’t always obvious what that thing is.

Well, there’s more to understand about habits. There are some very specific elements to habits that make them both make more sense AND give us stronger tools to change habits we don’t like, or develop new habits we want – and especially help us replace/rewrite the habit of chronic “what if?” thinking that gets us crazed in the first place. (This is the start of a 3-post series on habits and anxiety.)

Habits 4

What are the Elements of a Habit, and Why Do I Care?

A habit is a piece of thinking that we’ve “chunked” into a single unit or item in our brain. Think of it as a small, automatic program that you (unintentionally, most of the time) have set up in your thinking – like the programs you have running on your computer.

Think of brushing your teeth. Think of all the specific steps involved in doing that task. You have to get into the bathroom, get your toothbrush, put some toothpaste on the brush, run some water to get that stuff wet, then run that brush repeatedly around the surfaces of your teeth. You do it for some period of time, then take the brush out of your mouth, rinse the toothpaste out, then maybe grab some floss and then some mouthwash.

That’s a lot of things to run in a row. But tell me – do you actually do much THINKING around that process? I’m betting you tell me no. You are in the grip of a little automatic program you’re running while you think about the next day, or maybe how much you liked dinner, or man, wasn’t NCIS good tonight? 🙂

Habit 10

You’re not thinking – you’re just running a little program. Let’s get more technical/more precise. You experienced a cue or stimulus – in this case, stuff stuck in your teeth, or the strong taste of garlic in your mouth – and so you started towards the bathroom. You ran your tooth-brushing program, then you got a reward for it – in this case, a tingling feeling in your mouth and no more stuff stuck in your teeth.

Cue, Routine, and Reward. That’s what makes up a habit. So how does this apply to our fight with anxious, what if thinking and the rush of Flight or Fight?

What If – a Nasty Habit

As I do coaching and group discussions around this work of fear-busting I am always telling people that the core of the problem is our “what if?” thinking – i.e., our projecting/turning problems into crises in our thinking and then asking ourselves frightening/terrible what if questions about the outcomes. I almost always hear people tell me “sure, Erik, I buy it – I’m scaring myself in my thinking. But I don’t really consciously KNOW my “what if?” thoughts – they sometimes seem hard to identify or pin down. Which makes me think I’m NOT thinking what if thoughts.”

That makes sense. We started our what if thinking a long, long time ago, and by the time 99% of us get to a place where we’re aware that we’re dealing with anxiety at all that thinking has been “chunked” into a habit (really, multiple habits) and is running very much on automatic pilot in our skulls.

So we wouldn’t necessarily BE aware of the habitual thinking we’re doing. Let me make that stronger: when we start this work, and even when we’re well into this work, we will have anxious thinking that is NOT conscious – not right away – and it will take work to make it conscious for ourselves.

Habit 13

It might be as simple as you waking up in the morning. You immediately feel terrible – sad, hopeless, upset, afraid, you name it. You report that you “just feel sad” or “woke up really anxious.” You were not consciously aware of the thinking that made you feel that way – because that thinking is a habit chunk, a little program (or for most of us, several little programs) of scared what if thinking that has been running for years or even decades.

It zipped through your skull, maybe even before you were awake, and so you find yourself with all kinds of Flight or Fight reactions – feelings and physical sensations – and you think “crap, here we go again – what is wrong with me?” What’s wrong with you is your thinking habits – your “what if?” habits.

Wait a Minute – didn’t you Mention that there had to be a Reward to make it a Habit?

Habits only get set up when there is a payoff to that routine/program in response to the cue that starts the whole schemer. What could possibly be a reward for getting caught up in scary thinking?

Well, for starters, we don’t set out to scare ourselves. We set out to solve a crisis – or at least a crisis that we’re making out of a problem, situation, challenge in our thinking/lives. The cue is the crisis thinking. The routine is Flight or Fight, doing what it is supposed to do, trying to find a way to get away from the crisis – get away or solve it.

And the reward? There are a couple of possibilities. One is that worrying/agonizing over the future FEELS like we’re doing something concrete, something useful in the face of our fears. That is ISN’T useful 99% of the time is besides the point – it feels like it is useful.

Another likely outcome of that habit is that sometimes, in the past, worrying about something HAS given us a solution. It’s a lot less often than we believe, but once in a while worrying over something seemed to bring an answer. That answer might have happened for several reasons – the problem resolved itself, you got some outside help, or even a wild-ass effort resulted in some answer to your “crisis” thinking – but there was a payoff in the thing being resolved in some way.

Habit 14

I bet that you have experienced both outcomes to worry. The bottom line is that the vast majority of our anxious thinking is a habit that has had just enough reinforcement to become a habit – regardless of whether it’s a useful habit or not…

And what happens as a result of 99% of our worried, anxious, fearful thinking? We simply strengthen and encourage that useless habit to continue.

This Just in: Habits don’t have to be Good

These little automatic programs called habits are powerful things. And like it or not we’re going to create and have habits – it’s a human thing. But here’s some good news: we don’t have to be slaves and helpless prisoners to our habits. We can take command of our habits.

Make no mistake – habits can be stubborn. And if we’re afraid of something habits are likely to have even more control over our behavior. It’s going to take some work, effort, energy and tolerance for frustration as we work to disrupt and change the habits of anxiety in our lives.

Here’s some more good news: habits, for all of their toughness, are also surprisingly vulnerable to change. You just have to know how to change them. It appears that habits are most susceptible to change if you interrupt them in the middle…

Remember what I said about the elements of a habit? Cue, routine, reward? It seems that changing the cue or the reward is pretty challenging – even a waste of effort. The cues will keep coming and we really can’t stop them. Rewards are rewards – we want to feel better, we want to be encouraged or pleased or feel safe or whatever the rewards of a habit happen to be in that situation.

But we DON’T have to run the same routines. We can change those, take command of them, and wrench them into new routines, ones that work much better for us.

It’s time for some new routines. It’s time to take back the energy and time that our anxiety habits have stolen from us.

In my next couple of posts I will be reviewing specific examples of habit change…

Skills 3