The brain is always searching for efficient ways to get things done. A habit loop forms as the brain cycles and stores information to simplify tasks. It is important to know how these loops occur and identify how some habits become problematic in your life.
What Is the Definition of the Habit Loop?
By performing actions the same way frequently, the brain hardwires information about our responses. This is the habit loop. Habit loops are essential to the way we function in life. For example, while performing perfunctory tasks, such as making coffee in the morning, habits are efficient processes because they allow people to accomplish things without much thought. You save energy for tasks that require critical thinking skills.
However, the brain does not delineate between the types of information it stores. It takes its cues from physical and emotional responses. The brain hardwires stress responses when people react to certain stimuli in the same way. This creates an anxiety loop. So, even if a situation isn’t serious, the brain picks up on the signals from the body and sets all the system defenses in motion.
Anxiety habit loops are formed as individuals consistently overreact to stressors. Once the brain is wired to react a certain way, it will connect to the same loops, even though they may not be helpful responses to the circumstances at hand.
How Do Habit Loops Develop?
Habit loops evolved over time to help us manage large volumes of information and input into our brains. These feedback loops are the brain’s way of providing a fixed response to vast amounts of stimuli. This is the hallmark of an efficient, self-regulating system. However, any system that processes a lot of information categorizes it the best way possible, which does not always create the best outcomes.
Researchers have isolated habit acquisition to the basal ganglia located in the forebrain. This is where automatic learning takes place, and habit cycles are created. Here are three elements of a habit cycle and some habit loop examples:
A cue is what triggers a habit. Cues are powerful responses to external stimuli in the environment. For example, when you hear an emergency siren while driving, you immediately move your car to the side of the road.
Your brain is wired to respond to the sound cue with an automatic response. This becomes a habitual response no matter where you are when you hear it. So your brain is hardwired to follow the cue, and you get satisfaction from doing the right thing.
The routine is the habit. This is the cycle of behavior that is prompted by various cues. If food trucks are preparing meals outside your office, this could remind you each day that it’s lunchtime. Your routine may be to drop by for a quick bite.
In anxiety habit loops, there are many negative triggers. For instance, if you met someone for coffee and had an unpleasant experience, passing by a coffee shop becomes an unwelcome trigger. Anxiety triggers can be all-encompassing, and people begin to avoid uncomfortable interactions altogether.
The reward is the thing that makes you repeat actions because you desire particular outcomes. Positive reinforcement causes the brain to hardwire neural pathways that retrieve this information when a similar situation happens in the future.
This feedback loop can extend to unwanted behaviors. People who have anxiety feel relief when they practice avoidance or create ways to protect themselves from harm. Even if these behaviors aren’t healthy, the brain picks up the signals and stores them. The reward is emotional escape.
It is important to remember that habit cycles decrease stress and exhaustion by helping people develop effortless routines throughout the day. This gives you the ability to be more productive and saves valuable energy. However, when physical and emotional responses are out of sync due to stress and anxiety, habit cycles become detrimental to well-being.
What Creates Habit Triggers?
It is helpful to understand what produces habit cues because they influence the complexities of habits. These are some important areas where habit triggers develop:
- Emotions: Emotions are one of the most formidable areas of habit formation. People may overeat due to emotional triggers, even though they are not hungry. Anxiety sufferers have all kinds of emotional cues that cause overwhelmed responses.
- People: The actions of other people influence habit cue formation. Social media has provoked a lot of anxiety by exacerbating loneliness, inadequacy and dissatisfaction.
- Time: Time generates a lot of habit structures. It is an important cue for many social, workplace and home-related behaviors. Time also contributes to habits that evolve around isolation.
- Place: Spaces are powerful cues for individuals. If you have suffered trauma, being in the place it occurred or a similar environment can immediately invoke a panic attack.
There are programs available to help you hack the habit cycle.
Can You Undo the Habit Loop?
Neuroplasticity is one of the great wonders of the brain. This feature allows the brain to physically restructure itself and relearn information throughout your lifetime.
Your brain always takes the path of least resistance, so it may seem that old habits are difficult to reverse. However, there are tools to help overcome the cycle of anxiety and get your life on track.
Are There Effective Ways To Manage Habit Cycles?
Programs that disrupt your current habit cycles and help you implement new habits are effective in managing anxiety. Practicing mindfulness and observation techniques allows you to explore the issues behind your habit triggers and gain power over them.
It is essential to get your thinking brain online. Otherwise, habits force you down unhealthy pathways continually. Programs to unlearn anxiety allow you to observe and understand how your brain works and find the answers to change your frustrating habit loops.
Get Help for Anxiety
Sharecare’s Unwinding Anxiety® is a program created by Dr. Jud Brewer that provides an effective, step-by-step approach to treating anxiety issues. You learn how to hack your brain’s responses to anxious thoughts and stress with tools and techniques for success, so you can begin unwinding your anxiety today!