I want to recount a little story that happened to me recently to show how anxiety habit loops can be triggered in subtle ways.
Recently my Mom told me about an encounter she had with a coyote on the street where we were living together a month ago. She told me the location of where the coyote came out of the woods and onto the road. A week later, I was walking past the same location at dusk and a thought about the coyote popped into my head which triggered fear (trigger)and kept me on heightened alert (behavior) for any coyotes that might be around. I walked past the spot where my Mom had seen the coyote and experienced some relief(reward:safety). However, I was still experiencing lingering fear in my body from the incident and my mind felt it was a good time to wander.
When we are triggered with fear the mind wants to do something to keep us safe!
I noticed that two patterns were happening in my mind precisely because I was still experiencing fear from walking by the coyote den.
- According to Dr. Jud Brewer, whose anxiety habit loop model I have been discussing on this blog, our bodies hold associative somatic memories. This means that we pair emotional states in the body with past memories. If we are currently experiencing anxiety or fear, we may have thoughts and memories that were present at other times we were anxious or afraid. If I feel fear now then my brain may think of memories of what I was thinking about at other times when I felt fear. If I feel sad now, I may have thoughts associated with other times when I was sad.
In the coyote example, even after passing the den, my mind was sending me all sorts of thoughts that had in the past been associated with fear or anxiety.
- I also noticed that any random thoughts that were not previously associated with fear for me all felt much stickier. When our bodies are in fear, the mind wants to do something to feel better. The mere fact that I was experiencing fear in my body was making all of my random thoughts stickier and scarier. Any thought that came into my mind now felt suddenly more important precisely because my body was still experiencing fear. This is even if the thoughts were boring and benign. If there is anxiety in the body then it’s possible that any thought that comes into the mind may be associated with that anxiety. This is why when I would wake up anxious in the past and there would be a moment of no thoughts, my mind would then kick into gear and find something to be anxious about. My mind felt the anxiety in the body, resisted it, and went searching for thoughts to explain the unpleasant body sensations and mental behaviors to feel better from them. Alternatively, when we don’t have anxiety in the body and a random thought pops into our minds, we may not even pay any attention to it. Our calm body sensations tell us the thought isn’t dangerous.
In other words, if I am anxious or afraid I can expect other thoughts associated with anxiety to come into my mind AND for those or any other thoughts to feel really sticky. The reason I am writing about this is that there is huge benefit in being aware of this process. It’s not something to resist. It’s simply how the mind works.
If we are not aware, what often happens in situations like these is that these new thoughts become associated with the anxiety and fear that we are already feeling in our bodies and we start to go into our heads and do mental compulsions to avoid the feelings of fear and anxiety. Now we have created new habit loops that are all mental and have nothing to do with the original fear that was a legitimate fear of danger from a coyote, for example. The legitimate fear that is surging through our bodies in the aftermath of a brush with danger is now tied to the obsessive thoughts about any random anxieties. It could be hours later and we are obsessing over the pain in our chest that we think is a symptom of disease and we have not realized that the only reason that thought was so disturbing in the first place was that it entered the mind at the time when the body was already experiencing fear.
Here is an example with anxiety that relates to the above coyote habit loop and the subsequent anxiety triggered from that healthy survival loop.
It’s lunchtime and I’m dining out and have a thought that my food portion is going to be too small which triggers anxiety- I obsess about if I ordered the right option and ask the waitress if it’s a large portion- I feel a little better
Now the food comes and the portion size is fine. I get some rewards from eating the meal and from the fact that my mind stops worrying about the portion size. I feel a little bit better. However, there is still a lot of anxiety in my body from the situation.
Now I’m eating my food and still feeling the anxiety from the previous portion size trigger. If a thought like “Oh no maybe you left the stove on” pops into my head, I will associate that thought with the anxiety from the food trigger. That thought will seem really scary.
Anxiety from lunch triggers an anxious thought about leaving the stove burner on- I do mental checking behaviors to go over in my head if I turned the stove off- I feel a little better momentarily
The brain lays down a memory
Obsessing over the stove now becomes the trigger- I obsess some more-I feel not much better
The reward becomes less and less rewarding which causes the brain to continue to cycle over and over trying to get the reward. Now I am caught in a never ending anxiety habit loop.
If on the other hand I wasn’t anxious and worried about portion size and the same thought about the stove burner popped into my head while I was eating, I may not pay as much attention to it.