Why Does My Anxiety Keep Coming Back?

Sometimes willpower and reframing aren’t enough to break a habit. Here’s how to break the cycle.

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We easily recognize our anxiety when it shows up as an anxiety attack, or when a cascade of anxious thoughts is triggered by a stress-inducing event like public speaking. Yet anxiety is a lot less noticeable when it’s our constant companion—part of the background noise in our thoughts on a regular basis. In those situations, it’s most likely that anxiety has become a habit.

“But how can anxiety be a habit?” we may ask. It’s not something we do—it just seems to pop up, bringing our body and brain along for the ride—and most people who deal with frequent anxiety see it as a problem, rather than fulfilling a need. The answer lies in our brain’s built-in reward system. According to the latest research on habit change, anxiety hides in a habit loop that consists of a trigger, a behavior, and a result. While we tend to think of habits as outward actions that bring us a perceived reward (like smoking to feel calmer, brewing a warm drink to wake us up, or brushing our teeth often to prevent dental problems), the evolutionarily older part of our brain—the part that’s continually scanning our environment for danger—can…