In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes the habit loop. Essentially, habits are structured around a cue, routine, and reward and most of the things we do revolve around us performing preset routines based off cues that present themselves throughout the day.
For example, the smell of coffee in the morning is a cue for most people to go ahead and pour themselves a cup, waking up is a cue to brush teeth (hopefully), and getting home from work can be a cue to go to the gym. You get the idea. The fulfillment of a habit results in a reward, whether it be in the form of relief, pleasure, or anything else. It may not seem like it, but habits run most of our lives, and changing them is the key to changing your life.
Habits also have a more nefarious side that may not be readily obvious. Things like negative thinking and over-worrying are more or less the results of habits we cultivate and reinforce every time we engage in them. Take a day or two to see for yourself, it’s more than likely that your episodes are triggered by exposure to certain events or stimuli. What happens when we start worrying all the time is the line between cue and non-cue is blurred, and so it becomes very hard too see that we are operating from habit.
To break the habit of worrying, we must put a concerted effort on associating our cues with new routines. The best part is the new routine doesn’t have to be very complicated at all. In fact, it can be the simplest of all human behaviors–breathing. Since it can be hard to recognize cues to worry at first, just treat the worry itself as the cue. Focus on catching yourself engaging in worry and immediately take as deep a breath as possible. It should be so deep and involved that nothing else but the intent of breathing is going through your head. If the worry resumes once finished, just do it again. Do it 10 times if you have to. This isn’t going to reverse your problem overnight, but done regularly you’ll start to see progress in as soon just a couple days. Habits run off momentum so starting is the hardest part and it will get progressively easier over time until you no longer incessantly worry.
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