Anxiety and Other Habits

Our brain keeps pulling that worry slot machine lever hoping that it will hit the solution jackpot.” Judson Brewer

Much of this talk comes from Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind by Judson Brewer

Whether your habit is eating chocolate, being anxious, shopping, being busy, drinking or procrastinating, the behavior became a habit as your brain felt there was a reward for that behavior.  We continue habits even when the reward is no longer there because we don’t provide our brain the information that the reward no longer is valid.

Our brains were designed to help us survive. As cavemen we used reward-based learning to help us remember where to find food. This same learning process can trigger cravings, create habits and even compulsive behavior or addictions.

Consider the habit of worry. That is right, worry and anxiety are not character traits, they are habits.  At some point the orbitalfrontal cortex, the reward center in our brain, linked problem-solving with worrying. So, our brain thinks the best thing to do when we see a problem is to worry. Thus, we create the habit of being anxious and worrying.

The downsides to having a habit of worrying are that when your worrying mind does not find a solution, it triggers anxiety which triggers more worry in an endless cycle. Pretty soon feeling worried or anxious feels familiar, and the “right” way to feel.

We don’t even realize it when we are strengthening these neural pathways repeatedly. Thus, to change a habit, we need to use the three gears as described in Judson Brewer’s book Unwinding Anxiety. The three gears are:

  1. Mapping your mind
  2. Updating your brain’s reward value
  3. Finding the bigger, better offer
First Gear: Mapping your mind

To map your mind, you need to begin with intellectually knowing how habits form. Then you must practice translating the concepts into know-how through your own experience. It is not enough to read the book or listen to a talk about it. Our brain has taken what it learned about our habits and moved that knowledge into muscle memory.  So, we react automatically without having to think.  We need to practice being conscious about our habits to counteract this.

If your habits were created to relieve stress, remember that your prefrontal cortex has probably gone off-line. So, you don’t think, you just do. It is not until the habit provides you with temporary relief that your prefrontal cortex comes back online. That is usually when you begin beating yourself up for slipping into the habit again.

So, the first gear of changing a habit is becoming aware of that habit and mapping it out.  All habits have three components, a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. When you are aware of your habits, you can get curious about them. The questions Judson Brewer suggests that you ask yourself are:

Why am I doing this? What triggered the behavior? What reward am I really getting from this? Do I want to keep doing this?”

Judson Brewer’s Example:
  • Trigger: Anxiety
  • Behavior: Worry
  • Reward: Feeling more anxious
My Example:
  • Trigger: It is lunchtime (I never allowed myself to have a diet Pepsi in the morning)
  • Behavior: Drinking a diet Pepsi
  • Reward: Feeling comforted and connected

The reward is what triggers your future behavior, not the behavior itself. Knowing what triggers your habit won’t magically help you to quit the habit. Triggers are the least important part of the habit loop, and the part you have least control over. Because our brains use reward-based learning, it is the reward that influences future behavior.

Not all habits are bad. Automatically brushing your teeth before bed is a good habit.  Habits become bad when they keep us doing behaviors that don’t serve us well. If we do them often enough, we begin to think that is who we are. That is where mindfulness comes in. If we can be mindful, we can become aware of the habit. We can see that we are stuck and learn to unstick ourselves. One place where I am stuck is the habit of not putting on sunscreen.

  • Trigger: Going outside
  • Behavior: Don’t put on sunscreen
  • Reward: Get tan faster
Second Gear: Updating your brain’s reward value

Your brain chooses what to lay down as a habit, and what not to do again. This is all based on how rewarding the behavior is.  The more rewarding the behavior, the stronger the habit.

Reward value has been mapped to a certain part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC is a crossroads in the brain where emotional, sensory, and previous behavioral information gets integrated. The OFC takes all of this information, groups it together, and uses it to set that composite reward value of a behavior, so we can quickly retrieve it in the future as a “chunked” bit of information.” Judson Brewer

So, to change a habit, you can’t just focus on not doing the behavior.  You must look at the actual reward (positive or negative) that behavior is providing. Often the reward we think we are getting is only part of the picture. In my example, here is how the reward value changed.

  • Trigger: It is after lunchtime
  • Behavior: Drinking a diet Pepsi
  • Old Reward: Feeling comforted and connected
  • Actual Reward/Result: After the first couple of sips, diet Pepsi doesn’t taste that good, need to go to the bathroom at least once within the next hour, uncomfortable in afternoon meetings, not able to connect with coworkers after the meeting

By simply being mindful while I drank my diet Pepsi, instead of beating myself up for wanting it, I began to see the full picture. I was not seeing all the negative consequences of drinking diet Pepsi.  When I added them into the reward value, my attitude started to change.  First, I quit drinking the whole bottle.  As soon as I noticed that it really didn’t taste that good, I would stop drinking it. And I continued to be mindful of the aftereffects, how I would sit in meetings dying to go to the bathroom. That reduced the reward value further. Eventually, the need to have a diet Pepsi dissipated somewhat.  If I craved one, I tried to be mindful of the full experience.  Eventually I quit drinking a diet Pepsi every day. Periodically I will want a diet Pepsi and will be very disappointed with it. I quit the habit by simply (not easily) paying attention to exactly how rewarding, or in this case not rewarding it was. This reset the reward value in my OFC.

Notice that I did not quit because diet Pepsi is bad for me. I tried that for years and it didn’t work. I quit because I realized that it really didn’t taste as good as I imagined it did.  And it caused me a lot of discomfort in my afternoon meetings. Resetting the reward value allowed me to break the habit after years of trying through pure grit. My brain had lumped all the comforting experiences of drinking pop with my sisters into a single reward of comfort and connection. That reward was no longer happening when I drank diet Pepsi.

No matter what you name it, if you want to change it, you have to rub your brain’s little orbitofrontal cortex nose in its own poop so that it clearly smells how stinky it is. That’s how your brain learns. Behavior doesn’t change if the reward value of that behavior stays the same. And the reward value can change only when you bring awareness to bear and see the actual reward value. This is NOT the reward value that got set when you were five years old, or thirteen, and could eat a whole bag of chips in one sitting and then go swimming without getting cramps. I’m talking about the reward value right now in your life. Only then can you hit that big red reward reset button.” Judson Brewer

The interesting thing about being mindful is that you can’t go back and pretend you didn’t see the change. I can’t drink a diet Pepsi without noticing that it really doesn’t taste that good. By being aware of the actual results of a habit, you begin to get disenchanted with it. Old habits can change when you become aware of today’s results.  But sometimes we ignore today’s results because they are downright painful. Our brain needs to see the lack of reward over and over before we can create a new habit of not doing the old habit.

Awareness helps you get up-to-date and accurate information so that you can trust the new data that are coming in, rather than dismissing them as erroneous. You can probably see the irony here—old habitual behaviors are based on outdated data, yet because they are old, they are familiar; and because they are familiar, we trust them (change is scary).” Judson Brewer

Sometimes we are not aware of our habit loop while it is happening. When we are mindlessly eating, we don’t notice when we have moved from pleasure to neutral to unpleasant.  Lucky for us we can drive in second gear retrospectively. Basically, we ask the question “What did I get from this?” after something has happened. This can be a better time for learning because we are less emotionally affected.  You can run through the reward scenario over and over for as long as you can recall how rewarding or unrewarding the results of the behavior were.  It is not “shoulding” on yourself.  It is recalling the facts, just noting what happened and how rewarding or unrewarding it was. This helps us become disenchanted with habits that no longer serve us.


Take a moment to think of a small habit that you would like to change. Become curious about that habit. Map it out on a piece of paper.

  • Trigger: What triggered this behavior?
  • Behavior: What is the behavior?
  • Old Reward/Result: At first glance, what did you get as a result of the behavior?
  • New Reward/Result: Seeing the whole picture today, what did you get as a result of the behavior?

Paying attention is vital if you want to change a habit. When we do pay attention to the results of our actions, the actual physical sensations and feelings are what tell our OFC to change the reward value. Only then can we move to third gear, the bigger, better offer.

Third Gear: The bigger, better offer

Third, for lasting habit change, you must find a bigger, better offer that is more rewarding and doesn’t simply substitute a different behavior. Substituting a chai latte for a diet Pepsi is not really changing my habit loop. Ideally, we shift from externally based behavior, drinking a diet Pepsi to an internally based one, telling myself that I am enough.

While I shift from the external behavior to the internal behavior, I bring a curious awareness to the sensations and feelings that arise. I learn that I do not have to do something to fix the situation, I can simply be with the problem and watch it disappear on its own. It may be that I can only do this for a second, but that is a huge step forward.

A great third gear, bigger, better offer is your breath. Your breath is always available.  And paying attention to it causes you to step out of the habit loop. It may even provide the reward of calming your body and mind.

For all of these practices—and for any third-gear practice, for that matter—you must see and feel really clearly just how rewarding they are. You can reinforce this by downshifting into second gear after you’ve done a third-gear practice (or even had a third-gear moment). Simply ask yourself, What did I get from this [third-gear practice/ moment]? and savor how good it feels.” Judson Brewer

Instead of trying to use brute force to quit a habit, you can use the reward-based learning our brains were designed for.  Whether your habit is eating chocolate, being anxious, shopping, being busy, drinking or procrastinating, the behavior became a habit as your brain felt there was a reward for that behavior.  In order to quit the habit,  we must clearly see the habit, pay attention to the results of the behavior, and update our OFC with the new reward value. This new reward value will help us create a new habit of not doing the habit we want to quit.