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I’ve been talking about the habit nature of fearful thinking in the last couple of posts. Most of us don’t think of thinking as a habit. We think of habits being things like brushing our teeth or always going to McDonald’s when work runs late, not our thoughts. But thinking can be very much a habit – and when it’s anxious thinking it’s vital that we see the habit, and do something about it.

As I’ve reviewed here recently habits have three basic elements: a cue (something that prompts the habit to start), a routine (a sequence of behavior and/or thinking that we move through) and the reward (what we get from the thinking/behavior routine/WHY we do that routine.) It seems from research into habits that we’re most effective at changing habits by focusing on changing the routine…

So how do we change those routines?

Blowing up the Routine of Anxious Thinking

It’s vital, central, crucial to understand that anxious thinking is an attempt is always about us trying to get to safety. The ruminating, the panicky review of what’s happening right at the moment we’re anxious in our bodies and minds, the obsessive behaviors we often move through when we’re anxious, the frantic avoiding of this or that thing, this or that sensation – all of that is us scrambling to get away from danger we believe we’re experiencing or about to experience.

A second thing to understand is that 99.9% of us develop these habits of anxious thinking way before we’re aware we’re doing it. In other words the HABIT of anxious thinking is firmly in place before we realize that we’re even really doing it. Which means that it is very, very easy to KEEP doing that habitual thinking and reacting, even when we want to stop it.

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Third, it’s important to get our arms around how Flight or Fight, once our fearful thinking activates it, is hard-wired into our brains, and hard-wired in such a way as to bypass our critical thinking abilities. Which means that once we scare ourselves we are going to have Flight or Fight fire up, and it’s going to be yelling RUN! Flight or Fight doesn’t know or care that you’re doing this in your thinking – it just knows you’re scared, and that you should get your ass in gear. 🙂

The last thing to understand in this habit of anxious thinking (and Flight or Fight’s inevitable reaction to that thinking) is that we come to be afraid of Flight or Fight itself, and begin flinching away not just from the thinking that scares us, but the reactions in our bodies and emotions that Flight or Fight generates in its mad efforts to get us to safety. I have discussed this last point a LOT in this blog, but in this specific context it’s necessary to see that we’re in some respects in a place of mindlessness when it comes to our reaction to Flight or Fight.

We’re flinching back and we’re often barely (or not at all) conscious of our flinching – we’re just letting Flight or Fight herd us into a corner, into a room, into a box, anything to NOT feel those scary feelings and sensations.

(Except of course Flight or Fight itself isn’t dangerous, won’t hurt us and doesn’t even mean us harm – it’s just doing its evolved biological thing, trying to gear us up for flight or combat. SO many anxiety fighters are terrified of their bodies and feelings when ALL that is happening is that Fight or Fight is taking its cue from our thinking – and that it is our thinking that is the problem AND the solution.)

Now at this point you might be thinking “crap, if this is all true how in the heck do I make it stop?” And the answer begins in seeing the routine that anxious thinking is running when it starts moving through our brain. That routine is both the reason the habit is so strong, and the place it’s most vulnerable to change.

Time for an example –

What if I Run out of Money?

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Talk about your basic modern fear – this one is a classic. Variations on this theme look like this:
What if I lose my job?
What if I can’t afford a place to live?
What if I can’t cover my medical expenses?
What if my spouse (who makes most of the money) leaves me, or something happens to them?
What if I don’t save enough for retirement?
What if I have unexpected expenses that I can’t cover?

Yikes. I’m betting some of you are already feeling scratchy from reading some of these what if questions. Let’s pull these apart from a habits perspective so we can identify how we can STOP doing this to ourselves. It starts with a cue of some kind.

That could be something as simple as seeing your checkbook. It could be seeing a bill in the mailbox, or looking at the calendar and noticing that you’re still a week short of payday. It might be noticing something you want to buy – and then about money and how little it seems you have. It might be something as innocent as someone else talking about their finances.

Any of these things, and a thousand more besides, could be the cues that fire up what if thinking. I’m hoping you’re seeing here that it is terribly frustrating and ultimately pointless to try and do anything about the cues that we’ve linked to the routine of what if thinking. A big part of what gets us in trouble with anxiety is that we, unconsciously for the most part, start running away from anything (any cue) that might fire up what if thinking and make us anxious.

That way lies madness… well, for sure it starts limiting our worlds. We retreat, pull back, avoid, and if we don’t veer off we’re diving into depression, the beginnings of agoraphobia and a desperate cycle of trying to keep the world at bay, working overtime to not have ANYTHING trigger anxiety for us. (Anyone recognize that set of behaviors?)

Futile, and it won’t take us anyplace useful. Ok, so screwing around with cues isn’t going to help. Let’s talk instead about the routine that we run in our thinking when that what if stuff starts to fire up in response to the cues that trigger it in the first place.

That routine looks something like this: “what IF I run out of money? (You pick the variation that sounds most like you.) You start wildly trying to “solve” that what if in a way that makes you feel less anxious. One routine might be what I just wrote above – running away from the whole problem in your thinking in the first place. Very rewarding for a while – maybe years – because you don’t feel as anxious.

Of course you can’t really run away. And while you may be pushing it out of conscious awareness some part of your brain, still worried about this money thing, is still trying to solve it. Which can be a second routine – an endless worrying about the what if in a desperate attempt to find some answer that makes us calmer.

THAT can go on for years and years – decades even. A third routine we can get into is flailing around for some quick fix – anything that makes this problem go away. Maybe it is cranking up the credit cards. Maybe it is borrowing money from family. Maybe it’s spending money you don’t have in a Hail Mary effort to feel better NOW – forget about how you’ll feel later when you get the credit card bill.

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And all the while you’re firing up Flight or Fight, which is almost certainly making you feel more anxious…

We need to stop running the same routine. We need a new routine. We in fact need to yank this whole automatic response off the turntable/out of the tape deck, and replace it with a new way of dealing with our automatic anxious thinking.

Changing Out the Routine

To start this change we need to get clear on the routine we’re running first. Which means getting conscious of that routine. And that means staying present with our fearful feelings and Flight or Fight sensations long enough to GET clear on the routine we’re running.

It is very, very easy to not be clear on what we’re telling ourselves, see the routine of thought and behavior that we’re running to get away from our fears. It FEELS safer to just default to the routine. But that is how we wind up becoming chronically anxious in the first place – we’re defaulting to running and avoiding and medicating, in multiple forms.

We can’t change a habit until we understand the automatic routines we’re running in that habit. This is why I ask my coaching clients to get a journal started. We have to spend a little time WITH our fears – I know, scary! – and listen to the routine we’re running in our heads and bodies.

1) What is the specific set of “what if?” thoughts you’re running in your brain? What are your specific fears? Write them DOWN. Get clear on them. Yes, you’re going to be anxious while you’re doing this work. It might feel like too much when you start. That’s OK. Take this work in small pieces. NOTHING is going to change if we keep running away from how anxious we feel.

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2) Expect Flight or Fight to go all “Oh my God RUN!” on you while you start this work. We have to begin to understand that Flight or Fight, while our fearful habit thinking is running, isn’t either trying to scare us or attempt to hurt us. It’s reacting to our fearful thinking.

It also doesn’t have any special wisdom or knowledge about us – it isn’t foretelling the future, foreseeing some terrible truth about our future. It’s just reacting to our FEARS of the future, based in our very anxious thinking.

3) We have to start disrupting and challenging the habitual anxious thinking AS it’s happening. We have to put the brakes on the tendency to run that anxious thinking out, and run it over and over and over and over again… because we’re not getting anyplace in our thinking, and we’re sure as hell not SOLVING anything , with that habit.

Remember, habits don’t have to be useful, even if at one time they seemed to help, seemed to make us feel better. Remember also that habits are automatic, and they won’t just stop on a dime. It’s going to take some time to change that tedious habit (or habits, really) of thought.

So we’ll wade into this work, freak ourselves out again and again as we get this thinking identified and written down so we can see it clearly, and then go right back to it again – it is, after all, an old and strong habit we’ve fed for a long time. It’s OK. It will change – just not usually quickly.

4) We need a new routine in place of that old routine. We need to see, with each habit of anxious thought that we currently run in our thinking, that we can and must change that routine from a path of crisis reacting to a path of problem-solving.

In other words we have to see that we’ve been treating X issue (like money challenges, or even just money worries) as crises. That created one kind of thought habit that we’ve been dancing to for way too long. We have to wrench that thinking out of its groove and convert it to problem-solving. That starts with learning to see the issue we’re panicking about AS a problem.

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Problem-Solving – the Actual Way to Break the Power of Anxiety

This post has already gotten big, so I’ll tackle the specifics of this around money, and at least one more issue we get freaky about, in my next blog post. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, you could do few things more profitably than get that journal started and get “naked” with your fearful thinking. Yeah, it’s going to be very uncomfortable. It’s going to do all the things that you don’t want it to do – make you anxious, get your thoughts racing, try to make you run away.

In other words it’s going to run that same habit or habits that have been scaring you for so long. But here’s the thing: you’re not in danger when you’re anxious, and it doesn’t matter HOW it feels. We’ve been running for a long time from a tiger that isn’t really there. We can teach ourselves to stop running (or at least slow to a walk) and begin to see the tiger for what it really is – a problem we’ve converted into a crisis.

And we can start to take our lives back. More next post –

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.)

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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? 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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…

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