How rewards drive anxious cravings for more rewards

or Why scratching an itch feels good until you’re itching all over the place….

Our minds want to move towards pleasurable experiences and away from painful ones.  This creates feelings of anxiety in the body.  These feelings show up as either anxious excitement(moving towards) or anxious fear( moving away).  Interestingly, they both feel similar in the body to me.  [Do excitement and fear feel similar to you?]

These sensations of anxiety are the mind’s helpers that help it act out its cravings to move towards or away.  Without the helper of anxiety, we probably wouldn’t pay attention to the mind’s cravings all the time.   When we feed the mind by following the cravings, we end up making the mind want more and more.  As it craves more, we get more of these unpleasant sensations of anxiety.  These sensations of anxiety compel us to get relief in the form of a reward of feeling a little better.  

This feeling better by acting out a behavior means the brain wants the reward again and it’s interested in how to go about getting the reward again.  What happens is that rewards set up a process of repetition via the anxiety/craving sensations.  These sensations are not pleasant and cause us lots of suffering. This same process of getting a reward causes more and more triggers of anxiety and craving.   

Anxiety is compelling us to do our habitual behaviors again which are then setting up the repetition process of reward and anxiety all over again.  When we are anxious and do a mental behavior we are scratching the itch (to get the reward) but we are doing nothing to make the trigger (anxiety) actually go away.   The itch comes right back.  Rewards lead to anxious cravings which lead to more rewards and more cravings.  Similarly, scratching an itch (behavior) feels better for a second(reward) until the body starts to itch in multiple places(same trigger returns) and the need to scratch returns again.  This need to scratch is the unpleasant anxiety that compels us to act out the scratching behavior to get some momentary relief.  Unfortunately, it perpetuates the unpleasant itching habit loop. 

Having more sensations of anxiety means we often do more of the behaviors the mind wants us to do, feeding more cravings to move towards or move away.   The way out of the looping, as I discuss on this blog is to intentionally turn towards the anxiety and get curious.  We feel the anxiety so we can let the craving, anxious mind settle itself.  We notice with mindfulness what we are actually getting from our habit loops so that we can choose how we want to act in the future.  The space to choose can come from feeling into the anxiety and craving that’s compelling us to act and to realizing that by being with the sensations we are in control. 

Being with anxiety and craving isn’t always pleasant, but it offers us an opportunity for agency in our lives.  The rewards of mindfulness and a life lived according to our values turn out to be more rewarding than feeding the mind’s anxious cravings for momentary rewards.

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