Habits: A Scientific Approach to Reducing AnxietyJan 27, 2023
Good Habits and Routines - A Positive Thing
There is a saying: Positivity is like a muscle: keep exercising it, and it becomes a habit.
Habits are the routine behaviours that we perform regularly, so often that they often become unconscious - any behaviour or action that you perform regularly can be considered a habit. They can vary from simple everyday activities like showering and brushing your teeth, when you wake, before you get ready for work, to more complex such as meditation or yoga.
There is also growing evidence and advocacy that good habits and habitual behaviours are actually good for us, and that adapting our behaviour can assist in minimising the symptoms of mild anxiety and stress.
In short, the seemingly insignificant acts that you engage in - getting up early in the morning and having a swim, journalling, eating at specific times, and meditating before you go to sleep, are part of a bigger picture - they form a routine. Psychologically, habits and routine are good for our mental health, and they have the ability to alleviate stress and reduce anxiety.
They help us cope with change, give us time to relax, and they can be a distraction from well, other distractions. Some experts believe innocuous acts such as cleaning, cooking, journaling, and going for regular walks, that is creating healthy habits, can even help those suffering from bipolar disorder, substance abuse and other more serious mental disorders as part of the wider treatment.
Our nervous systems are always checking for actions that make us happy, or deliver the brain’s reward chemical - dopamine. Habits develop because our brain picks up on what rewards (or punishes) us, recognises the pattern, and files it away in the part of the brain basal ganglia. The action, on repetition builds a habit loop that strengthens every loop, and eventually becomes an unconscious behaviour.
The linking of cue, action and reward - the loop - is how a habit is formed.
The basal ganglia area is where we also develop emotions and memories - but it’s not where conscious decisions are made. This is perhaps why habits - both bad and good - are so hard to break. Habits occur in the brain region that are out of our conscious control.
Research and Expert Support
The body of evidence around forming good habits, to support and reduce anxiety, stress and depression is growing.
- A study undertaken by NYU’s School of Medicine in 2020, split 226 volunteers that experienced Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) into 3 groups. Over a 3 month period, each group was regularly exposed to, or practised yoga sessions, stress management education, or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). While the regular involvement assisted all volunteers, the yoga was more effective than the standard education session in reducing anxiety.
- A 2019 study published by the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, examined how mindfulness practice affected stress levels among college students. The authors concluded that those who practised mindfulness regularly reported lower stress levels than those who did not engage in any mindfulness activities. This suggests that cultivating positive habits such as mindfulness can effectively reduce stress and improve mental health overall.
- Another 2019 study looked into the idea of habits specifically in more detail, and found compelling evidence for its effectiveness in reducing stress. The research, published on Plos One, concluded that “habitual behaviour could be an effective tool for managing GAD symptoms”.
- John Hopkins University, or more specifically the faculty of Medicine has long been an advocate for the formation of habits, particularly around mindfulness and exercise, to support and/or reduce symptoms of anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health challenges. They offer a myriad of articles and research that speaks to the benefits of good habits and routines.
Collectively, the research shows us that good habits can be useful tools for managing stress and improving our general mental health, particularly when dealing with long-term generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
By building positive habits through repetition, we can create neural pathways in our brains that become automatic responses when triggered – allowing us to break free from negative thought patterns associated with stress and instead focus on taking control of our lives naturally through habitual behaviour change over time.
Even with continued research in this area, it’s clear why so many health experts are advocating that good habits and healthy routines are effective strategies for managing GAD and positive mental health. The research is promising, and makes it worth considering exploring ways to naturally reduce your own anxiety and stress, to complement any traditional treatments that you may be undertaking.
Whether it’s practising mindfulness meditation or engaging in physical activity, having regular habits can help reduce stress and improve overall mental health. So if you struggle with high anxiety or stress levels, consider forming new healthy habits today!
The upside is, it definitely can’t hurt you.
Kick Fear in the Butt and Mumma Life is Now aim to promote skills and/or solutions that are protective of wellness and mental health. We may introduce techniques to support these issues, but the information is general information only, and should not be relied upon as health or medical advice in any format. We recommend you seek consultation with a mental health professional or physician before adopting any new practices or techniques to deal with anxiety- or stress-related mental health or medical issues.