Aristotle

Using the law of habit to break the habit of anxiety


“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit”

Aristotle

Aristotle


Aristotle
Image credit: www.jackmalcolm.com

At the most basic level anxiety is just a habit. A learnt behaviour that you repeated until it became firmly fixed in your mind.

If you let it go on long enough you begin to believe that it is something you will always have, something you’ll just have to put up with.

This then leads to you having another learnt behaviour, the ‘I’ll just make do’ attitude.

Shall I go away for the weekend with friends and meet new people?

No, I’ll make do with spending it at home alone where I’ll feel less anxious.

Shall I go for that new job?

No. I’ll make do with what I’ve got, it’s not worth the hassle and added responsibility.

Shall I go on that date my friends are trying to set me up on?

No, I’ll make do with being single and just complaining I can’t meet the right person.

Eventually you end up at the point where you ‘make do’ with just getting by. You may feel you are doing the right thing by trying to limit your anxiety, but all you are doing is reinforcing the habit.

What are habits and why are they needed?

Habits are stored programs in your brain which you can subconsciously call upon to undertake simple tasks or actions without requiring direct input from your conscious mind.

This helps you save time and energy, so you can focus on the more important and mentally stimulating parts of your day.

It is estimated that 40% of our daily actions are not actually conscious decisions but habits.

From making a cup of tea to driving to work, your brain recalls these habits and carries them out without you having to pay much attention.

This is often why once you’ve arrived at work you can’t really remember much of the journey you’ve just had. The only times you do is if something more eventful happened which required your conscious mind to get involved so you could make a decision on how to respond.

The Anxiety Habit

Anxiety as a habit works slightly differently to ‘action’ based habits. Here anxiety is working as an emotional habit, where your thinking and thought processes follow a set stored pattern.

This can then lead to you creating new ‘action’ based habits in order to try and reduce your anxiety. In other words, these help you create the coping techniques you use to try and feel better and they become an every day part of your daily routine. You end up doing them without thinking.

This then reinforces your anxiety habit further and so the cycle continues.

It is therefore incredibly important that you tackle both your negative emotional habits and your negative behavioural habits together.

It is almost impossible to try and stop your anxiety through mentally trying to force it from your mind. By doing so you are giving it the power to exist, giving it the attention it craves.

The key is not to fight it, but to just allow it to be, and learn not to care if you feel anxious or not. Despite its presence you must focus your efforts on putting in place new and improved emotional and behavioural habits.

Once you can do this, these new habits will mean that anxiety is unlikely to be triggered in the first place. You have replaced your mind’s negative routines with more positive and productive thoughts and actions.

Mental vs Physical

I cannot stress enough how important it is to work on both your mental (emotional) habits and your physical (action) habits.

If you are making every effort to retrain your thinking but keep yourself shut away then these thoughts are unlikely to stick and you’ll quickly revert back to your old ways of thinking again.

If you make changes to your behaviour and stop your coping techniques but don’t work on the mental side then it’s likely the anxiety triggered will overwhelm you and you’ll end up back doing your coping techniques again.

You must learn to have both better emotional habits and better action habits.

There is a caveat here; it is possible to control your emotions through your behaviour. If you can push yourself to make changes to what you do each day it can change your thought processes through ‘exposure’.

If you’re scared of flying but push yourself enough to get on a plane everyday for 2 weeks your brain will learn that there is actually no real threat. Your thinking processes change and you store new emotional habits which will be recalled automatically when in the same situation again.

For most though, the sheer fear involved in facing certain situations means that this method is never really an option on its own. It is also difficult doing it this way for those fears which you face very infrequently, you do not do it often enough to learn the new thought behaviour.

That said it is still best to start with your actions and support this by learning to change your ways of thinking. It is not advisable to start with your biggest fears but to start slowly and build upon each success.

The key here is to keep going, not to be happy with just one improvement but to then move on to the next. You’ll find this can become a snowball effect as your actions improve the way you think and your new ways of thinking keep your actions going.

Eventually your new action and thoughts become habit and replace the old negative habits which were limiting your life. The further you progress the more your anxiety reduces and the better you feel.

Remember you are not fighting the anxiety, you are telling it you don’t care if it is there or not. You will continue to make the right choices to learn the new habits through improving your actions and emotions.

You must however be patient, it takes time.

How to start replacing your negative habits with positive habits

You must first work out what your negative mental and physical habits are and then start to replace them with positive mental and physical habits.

You probably already know what a lot of the negative habits are and what positive habits you would like to have instead.

It’s easier to start with your behavioural habits, you can often get started straight away and very quickly see results.

Behavioural or physical habits

Negative physical or behavioural habits are likely to make you feel low, fed up and anxious – here are a few examples:

  • Lack of sleep – when you’re constantly tired you do not have the energy or drive you need to get things done, you end up taking the easy route to nowhere
  • Relying on alcohol or stimulants – using alcohol to numb your mind and caffeine to pick you up it can out a considerable stress on your body and mind
  • Being inactive and unproductive – by achieving very little you lower your self esteem and leave too much time to let your negative thoughts roll in
  • Eating poor quality food – you feel tired and lethargic, using food as a ‘pick me up’ to try and feel better
  • Avoiding new opportunities – by turning down new experiences you are limiting what you can do and you just end up regretting what you’ve missed out on

Now these may only be small things individually, but together they do add up. However, the real effects come when you replace your behavioural bad habits with better ones.

Here are some examples of positive habits you can learn instead:

  • Being productive – setting yourself a new challenge or project to complete – it could be some DIY at home helping out friends and family
  • Getting regular exercise – getting fit and in good physical shape can help with anxiety on so many levels
  • Buying healthy foods and cooking real meals – your body and brain need to be in good working order to keep your motivation up and moving in the right direction
  • Learning something new – challenging yourself to learn a new language or take up a new sport
  • Looking for new experiences – getting out there and getting involved with people and events

Our feelings of self belief and sense of achievement come from our actions and the things we do. By making these better actions into habits they don’t seem like a chore, they become a part of who you are and you end up looking to do more and more.

Emotional or mental habits

These can be harder to spot and also harder to know how to replace them with positive mental habits. Your actions can help you learn these, but I recommend you also spend time reading about these in my other articles and through the books I have listed in the Useful Resources section.

Negative emotional habits often include:

  • Fortune telling – telling yourself you’re going to feel anxious or panicked in a certain situation before you even get there, it ends up being a self fulfilling prophecy
  • Unrealistic negative thinking – you always fear the worst and get in to a spiral of downward thinking which leaves you thinking you can’t cope
  • Feeling like the victim – you constantly tell yourself life isn’t fair, you shouldn’t have to feel this way
  • Discounting the positives – you ignore all the good things in life and just focus on the negatives

These need to be replaced by positive emotional habits such as:

Learning to understand your negative emotional habits and replacing them with positive ways of thinking takes time and knowledge so that you can understand your mind and how it works. When coupled with the positive actions you take it will make a huge difference in the way you feel.

The Success Habit

People who are successful in life, those who get what they want and feel fulfilled have made success a habit.

The feelings of fulfilment and achievement through success (no matter how small) will never come if all you do is sit there dreaming about it.

You can long to feel better, you can long to be this or to do that. But sitting around just thinking about it will never get you there.

Thinking about it just puts it at a further distance, it’s our positive actions and the turning of these in to habits which brings us closer to the things we desire.

How many times have you got excited about doing something new or taking on a new project just to see the enthusiasm die away a few days later?

It’s likely this happened because you spent more time thinking about it and not enough time doing it. You have to keep doing it, over and over to turn it in to a habit, a way of life.

You discover that the enjoyment comes in the journey, not the final destination. Those who only dream about getting there never do because they do not embrace the work required to achieve it.

The new positive habits you create become stored programs in our mind and lead us towards the lives we want to have.

As Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do………greatness then, is not an act, but a habit”.

This works in a very similar way for anxiety. Those who have overcome it didn’t do it by sitting around moping, they got on with life no matter how they felt.

They made new positive thoughts and actions into habits, and by doing so they replaced the thoughts and actions which were bringing them down and making them feel the way they did.

Some may have done this without even realising, others worked it out, but either way they did the most important part. They put in the time and effort to make it a habit, over and over and over. They turned their habit of anxiety into a habit of feeling well again.

One of the amazing parts of this is that once you’ve learnt how to do this you can then use it to improve many other areas of your life. Your habit of anxiety can even become a habit of success.

How I learnt the law of habit

I wish I had known about this years ago, I would have spent a lot less time either avoiding things which made me anxious or trying forcefully beat it with will power.

I learnt it by lifting weights, which might not seem a likely way to start. To begin with I lifted as a distraction technique, to empty my mind of my thoughts and feeling. It wasn’t until later that I realised that by doing this simple action over and over again it had become habit and I realised I could use this technique elsewhere in my life.

Lifting weights taught me discipline and self control, it also helped improve many other aspects of my life. I started eating better, drinking less, sleeping longer and using the learnt habits of discipline and self control to improve other areas of my life.

It gave me motivation to understand my mind better and to learn how to change my thinking. I had always had the desire to feel better, that was unquestionable, but now I had the knowledge and determination to do it.

I changed my old habits and replaced them with the habits I wanted. I stopped fighting anxiety but instead decided to carry on anyway and do the right things for me no matter how I felt.

Can you use the law of habit to reduce anxiety and get more out of life?

Oh, yes.

Learning new and better habits is something we can all do, it’s something you’ve done many times before without evening knowing it.

The difference here is that you want to do it and you want to pick the right habits. Not just leave it up to chance that you’ll learn the correct new habits that will stop you feeling anxious all the time.

There is no great trick to this, anyone can do it, but you and only you can make these changes. No amount of therapy or pills will do this for you.

You have to understand the habits that got you where you are today, and then learn the new improved habits which will get you where you want to be.

Many of your current bad habits will be similar for everyone, especially your current negative thought processes. However, some will be unique to your mind and your situation.

They will not fall in to place over night, they take weeks or even months to cement themselves in your mind. If you give up at every set back you will not give them the time they require to stick firmly in your mind.

You may just find that you not only feel better but you also start to make improvements in many other areas of your life. You learn to turn your anxiety on its head and use it as a force to make positive changes in areas you didn’t even expect.

Habits are a powerful thing and it’s time you used them for the better.

 

Hugo Rock

 


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