Kicking the Anxiety Habit

You can quit smoking and caffeine… but can you kick your monthly panic attack?

by Eddie McNamara Health Writer

Many of us have dealt with anxiety for so long that it feels like a part of our DNA. Being anxious, we think, is just part of who we are. But what if we rejected the idea of anxiety as a permanent fixture, and treated anxiety like any other bad habit—like smoking cigarettes or eating too much junk food? What if we tried to “quit” it?

I’m not suggesting you try to do it by willpower alone. Turns out there are strategies available based on research on how our brains form negative behavior patterns, bad habits, and addictions.

I was intrigued when I heard Jud Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., an addiction psychiatrist, scientific researcher, and expert in mindfulness training, explain his methods on the Ten Percent Happier Podcast. Actually, I was inspired—I went out, bought his book Unwinding Anxiety, and signed up for the app of the same name. I take this stuff very seriously.

Dr. Brewer takes a different approach to anxiety than many other experts. He says anxiety starts as a reaction to perceived stress, but it can also become a self-perpetuating bad habit. All habits start as a habit loop made up of a trigger, behavior, and reward. The trigger tells our brain to go on autopilot so we don’t even decide to perform our behavior—we just automatically do it and get our reward. Dr. Brewer suggests that by understanding our habit loops, we’ll discover that our brain’s idea of a reward isn’t rewarding at all. It’s actually preventing us from progressing.

Does that sound confusing? It won’t after I map a few of my common anxiety loops for you like the doc does. (You should write yours down, too.)

Run-of-the-Mill Anxiety

Trigger: Feelings of anxiety
Behavior: I’ll play a video game or watch a funny YouTube video.
Reward: I get a temporary distraction from those feelings of anxiety.
Why it doesn’t work: I haven’t dealt with the problem, so anxiety returns as strongly as before once the distraction ends.

Anxiety-Worry Loop

Trigger: Feelings of anxiety
Behavior: I worry about every worst-case scenario, ruminate on all the things I’ve done wrong in the past, and stress over how everything is going to be terrible in the future.
Reward: My mind is busy worrying and mulling over real or imagined problems, so it feels like I’m preparing or strategizing about the situation.
Why it doesn’t work: I’m not actually doing anything tangible except creating more anxiety and worry.

Pre-Panic Attack Freakout

Trigger: Feelings of high anxiety when I reach a crosswalk where I’ve had several past panic attacks
Behavior: I reach the halfway mark and literally freeze up like a deer in headlights. As the physical symptoms take hold—heart beating out of my chest, hands and feet going numb, cold sweats, queasiness—I give up and go home.
Reward: I run away from panic cues by holing up in my apartment and watching soccer.
Why it doesn’t work: Hiding is a problem, not a solution—it prevents me from having a sustainable or rewarding life. Plus, reinforcing the thought “crosswalk = panic attack” means I’m more likely to have a panic attack next time I encounter it.

So these are my anxiety habit loops, ones Dr. Brewer says can be broken by using mindfulness-based techniques to build new and healthier habits. One of the practices he suggests (abbreviated as RAIN) has been helpful to me since I took a mindfulness-based stress reduction class in 2018. The way it works: Basically, instead of trying to push away your anxious feelings, you turn towards your discomfort with a curious mind:

  • Recognize what’s happening.

  • Allow yourself to experience the sensations and thoughts, just as it is.

  • Investigate with kindness.

  • Note what you’re experiencing.

Once you get used to this, try mapping your anxiety again and changing your relationship to it. Here’s what my Pre-Panic Attack Freakout looked like after applying this strategy:

Trigger: Feelings of high anxiety when I reach a crosswalk where I’ve had several past panic attacks
Behavior: Wait near the crosswalk, but don’t cross. Feel the sensations associated with anxiety and panic: racing heart, nausea, lightheadedness, confusion, sweating, numb hands and feet. Take deep breaths and ask myself questions. Are both hands numb or just one? Is there no sensation or do I feel pins and needles? Are my hands sweating? What about my feet? The answers don’t matter as much as staying with the feelings and gently engaging with them until they pass.
Reward: Cross the street at the next opportunity and seven more streets until I reach Trader Joe’s and buy a bag of pickle-flavored popcorn.

That’s a hell of a lot more rewarding than increased feelings of anxiety, am I right? Look, the strategy isn’t foolproof, and maybe it isn’t for everyone. But for me, just the idea that anxiety is a habit I can break, as opposed to a lifelong sentence I’m doomed to live with, helps me feel more hopeful… and less anxious. And that’s progress.

Eddie McNamara
Meet Our Writer
Eddie McNamara

Eddie McNamara is a 9/11 first-responder and former cop turned vegetarian chef and author. He's been living with panic disorder and PTSD for 17 years, and he'll be sharing his experiences, thoughts, and seriously hard-won advice every month. Check out all his columns for "Panic in the Streets."