Just to be clear, I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I have talked to plenty and read many of the books (even excerpts of the DSM!!). Essentially, our brains learn to respond to stressful situations by becoming anxious, and it becomes a pattern for us in the future. (For more about the anxiety loop, see Dr. Jud Brewer's page or read his book - affiliate link.)
What is anxiety?
Scientists seem to agree that anxiety is a stress response that goes back to the caveman days. It is a way of alerting our bodies to danger and getting us to react. Our hormone levels increase when we sense the danger, and they are released when we react (fight or flight). Obviously, anxiety can still serve its purpose for us today, but we don't live in the same environment of constant danger.
However, we learn to respond to daily stressors using this same approach. For example, you know you have a big presentation coming up and you get anxious considering all the parts of your presentation, and it motivates you to complete the presentation. The next time you have a presentation, your mind responds the same way. Your brain has learned that if you get anxious about your presentations, you will do the necessary work.
Why do I need to break the anxiety habit loop?
When we are constantly anxious, it can lead to a host of physical and dangerous medical conditions. Our bodies were simply not designed to keep worrying without an outlet. Untreated anxiety can lead to an inability to focus, depression, and even heart attacks.
Why do leaders need to break the anxiety habit loop?
It is essential for leaders to break the anxiety habit loop so that they can remain calm and clear-headed in stressful situations. Although anxiety does provide us with the push we need to act, often it interferes with the quality of our thought processes and prompts us to respond in an emotional rather than rational manner. Furthermore, emotions are contagious, so when we are anxious, our team becomes anxious. We want to lead by example and lead a team of calm, focused, rational thinkers, so we need to start with ourselves.
How can I break the anxiety habit loop?
First of all, try not to become anxious about being anxious! Try adapting some of these simple habits.
Most of the time, we are unaware of our thought processes and we let our minds run away with anxious thoughts. Try to start by simply recognizing when it is happening and notice it in a nonjudgemental way. When you notice that your mind is going wild with anxious thoughts, just say to yourself, "look at that, you started the anxiety habit loop, silly mind." As you start to recognize when you are anxious, then pay attention to your triggers. Once you know what your triggers are, you can start to plan for new habits and responses.
The number one way to release stress hormones is by exercise. Ideally, you will have a daily routine in place, and I have found that ones that get your heart rate going are the most effective. Even 5 minutes of HIIT will do the job.
RAIN is a meditation technique that takes you beyond the recognition step. Basically, just be curious about what is happening in your body and express self-compassion. Like all meditation techniques, it is a practice that needs to be done over, and over and over. If you need to do it 20 times a day, that's ok, it's all in the journey to rewiring your brain so you do not go straight to anxiety.
Start recognizing when you feel anxiety building and be curious about how your body is responding.
Find a way to build in at least 5 minutes of exercise each day.
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