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The Habit Loop for Anxiety


Dr. Jud Brewer




Have you ever wondered why you have habits? Or how those habits get set up in your brain to begin with?


Let’s focus specifically on how habits around anxiety are formed. We’ll call it the habit loop. First, something happens in your life. It could be good or bad. It’s called a trigger. For example, what does it feel like when something good happens in your life? Let’s use getting a funny text, or watching a cute video on your phone as an example. Your brain says, oh, that feels good, do that some more, so you can keep that good feeling going. So your brain lays down this memory. Oh, next time you want to feel good, you should do that again. Now you start to associate that behavior with feeling good. The next time you hear that alert on your phone, that triggers your brain to act. Oh, I should check my phone. The more you do this--getting an alert on your phone, leading you to watch a cute video, leading you to feel good--the more this gets laid down as a habit loop. Trigger, behavior, reward.

This works with negative emotions too. Have you ever just thought about how far behind you are on your to-do list, or beaten yourself up for making a mistake or missing a deadline at school or work? How does that feel? Not so good, is it? Just like we want to have more good feelings, we want bad feelings to go away as quickly as possible. So what do we do when this happens? We get triggered by that thought or emotion, and go and do something on our phones to feel better. This too lays down a memory. If you're stressed or anxious, distract yourself, you’ll feel better. The more we do this--get anxious, which leads to distracting ourselves, which leads to feeling a little bit better--the more this too becomes a habit. Trigger, behavior, reward.

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