Am I anxious just because I’m made this way, or is it because I learned to be this way? (at least in part). Whilst some of us are predisposed towards anxiety (Sensitive types are like Orchids), I can’t help but feel that, in some way, I learned to be anxious. I feel that for many chronic worriers, we worry because it’s a behaviour we have learned so well and have practised so much we follow it out of habit.
We get into a groove of behaving and thinking in certain ways. We get into a scenario, in my case, up-and-coming social situations, and I learned to be anxious in those moments (anticipatory anxiety). Like any habit, we follow the same behaviour each time the situation arises.
Problems we worry over are mental chew toys, and the future has many of them. We ruminate on them, ‘chew the cud’ because it’s a habit we have picked up. It gives our minds something to do but doesn’t help a lot. So anxiety, I feel, has become a habit for many of us. The wild and negative speculation about the future becomes our habitual go-to place when facing uncertainty.
We engage our minds in thinking because that’s the behaviour we think will do us most good. Then, the more you think, the more you want to think, becoming almost like an addiction. Anxiety or thinking is my default, and thinking negatively is but a short step away. But that doesn’t mean such a habit can’t be changed.
It’s why I like Buddhism because to be mindful is to stop ruminating and pay attention. To turn our mind away from ideas and towards the senses and body sensations, a common one is our breath. Making this a habit as an alternative to worrying is why it’s recommended for anxiety sufferers.
It doesn’t have to be mindfulness and meditation; it could also be reaching out to talk with a best friend, taking in some art, or some form of exercise. A better alternative when we are stressed than just thinking negative thoughts.
If worry itself is a habit, we can treat it as any other behaviour we want to change. We can reduce our anxiety by avoiding the automatic leap towards thought when we face a problem.
I’m not going to go into depth here about habit change as it’s a whole topic itself. But by thinking of anxiety as a habit, we get to feel a little more empowered to change it towards something healthier for us. Feel less ashamed for having a bad habit.
Looking back on my journey of anxiety, I can see I changed my thinking habits with alternatives, with writing, art, yoga, socialising and exercise. Anxiety is partly a lifestyle; to be less anxious, we need to change that lifestyle.
The very friends we need are the one who will save us from our own nightmares.
Maybe it’s not anxiety that’s the habit, but the running. I read somewhere that we don’t run because we’re afraid; we’re afraid because we run. Our fears remain fears because we refuse to face them and seek an understanding of them. As such, we never learn the truth about them if we keep running away.
Avoidance became a habit for me, and for a long time, I never challenged my perceptions and practices. That’s the worst thing loneliness does to people. We become so afraid to face others we end up in a little bubble of our own. In such a bubble, our fear grows stronger with no reality or facts to challenge or shatter them. Such isolation lets us live in a fantasy realm bearing little resemblance to the real world. The truth is people are far more compassionate and forgiving than we imagine.
When alone, our perceptions become distorted. We tend to imagine the worst, falling into a spiralling circle of fear, low self-worth and delusion. Like Scrooge in The Christmas Carol, when others hurt us, we can turn away from the world.
Without reality to guide us, our worldview becomes tainted and poisonous. Cynicism and pessimism lead to bitterness, regret, and anger. Which only keeps people away, perpetuating the cycle of suffering. Or Samsara in Buddhism.
Fear and hurt create a self-fulfilling prophecy. I feel we run towards rumination and away from reality because we have the habit of doing so. So, we end up more in our heads with all the demons they conjure up. Despair, shame, guilt, self-pity, helplessness. The Four Horseman of the Modern Apocalypse, as I call them.
Because we don’t test our ideas or beliefs in the real world, our nightmares and fears find a life of their own. Away from the daylight of the world in the painful reality we become trapped in. Our habitual instinct to turn inwards is not a bad one to have, especially for an artist. But it comes with risk. Always turning inwards means our fears are fed by ignorance; we fail to learn the truth that our suffering is based upon falsehoods.
To break the illusions and ease our suffering, we need to reduce the habit of running away and turning inwards when something upsetting happens. Instead, we need to adopt a different habit, one that faces the fear and helps us cope with the feelings we have.
Mindfulness is a way of breaking the habit of running away from our fears and towards thought. Just being with the feelings in time can help us understand them, and so they no longer have quite the same power over us.