The good news is the same as the bad news about habits: They're unconscious. That means once a positive habit is established, it levels up your life with no effort from you. It also unfortunately means that once you get into bad habits, they constantly push you toward negative behavior without you necessarily realizing it.
We all know that's true of eating and exercise, but a new book by a psychiatrist argues it's true when it comes to anxiety, too.
Are the habits you've developed to deal with anxiety making it worse?
Unless you have an unquenchable thirst for horror films and doomscrolling, we don't generally think of our routines as causing anxiety -- the world right now gives us plenty of reason to worry -- but according to Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer, even simple, everyday habits can end up amplifying our anxiety.
Greater Good Science Center recently offered a handful of examples in the course of their write-up of the book. Take someone who is often stressed about their work and takes breaks to scroll through social media or the headlines to "unwind." The result is an avalanche of negative news and social media toxicity that leaves this hypothetical employee even more anxious.
That's just one example. Perhaps when you're anxious, you eat snacks that leave you feeling gross and concerned about your health. Maybe you just lose hours to worry in response to your anxiety. Whatever the case may be, Brewer points out that these habits probably once brought you comfort. Cake was a solace when you were 18. Social media used to be fun. Now, though, these responses to anxiety just make the feeling worse.
Don't break a habit, replace it
What's to be done if, on reflection, you sense your habits are reinforcing your anxiety? For a complete answer, you'd need to read Brewer's book, but the basic principles of changing any habit are the same: Notice the habit and its trigger and then find something healthier to replace your current unhelpful behavior (much like people switch to gum when they're trying to quit smoking or swap fruit for cookies in the break room).
Simply realizing that your habits in response to anxiety are no longer serving your interests should get you a good way toward changing them, but Brewer also suggests positive alternatives to scrolling, snacking, or stressing such as tuning into your breathing or throwing some thoughts of loving kindness out into the universe and watching how that makes you feel. Other experts have suggested simple rituals to try when you feel anxiety creeping up.
You can check out the book or the article for more details, but the first essential step to purging your bad habits is simply taking a more careful look at how you respond when you feel anxious. Are the responses that have become habits for you really helping you anymore?