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Finding Balance with Brittany Bown: how to break the anxiety-distraction habit loop

Masks are becoming fewer; we’re no longer scared of a snap lockdown and we’re back travelling again.

However, looking back it’s impossible not to acknowledge just how hard the past few years have been. Now, as we are slowly settling back into a “new normal”, I’ve noticed a few lingering changes to the way we function. The truth is stress, anxiety and uncertainty are all uncomfortable emotions and one way to deal with them is by not dealing with them at all and remaining constantly distracted instead.

During the peak of COVID, one of my clients worked at a liquor distribution company (considered an “essential” business). Throughout that period, she worked 70-plus hours a week. Business had never been busier. Others stressed about the “quarantine 15 (pounds)” or gaining weight because they turned to food for comfort. As for myself, I joined the growing ranks of Netflix binge-watchers as a way to distract myself. The thing with bad habits is that they are hard to shake, and I’ve noticed a few lingering on my end.

Whether your vice is food, alcohol, social media, work, or television, when faced with increasing anxiety, why do our brains urge us toward distractions?

Whether addicted to a substance or a behaviour, we have learned to associate a particular action with an outcome. Anyone who gets an urge to eat a snack, check their news feed or go on social media when they’re bored or anxious can relate to this feeling. That restless contraction in your stomach or chest. It lets you know that something is off. Your brain says, “do something!” and the action, or the distraction, makes you feel momentarily better. To you, looking at cute puppies on YouTube (again) may seem like a strange choice when you still have a big work project to do, but to your brain, it’s a no-brainer.

Uncertainty makes us feel anxious. Anxiety urges us to do something. The problem is that, often, distractions are not healthy or helpful. No one can binge on food, booze, or Netflix forever. In fact, it’s dangerous to do so. Our brains will become habituated to these behaviours and eventually will begin to need more and more of them to get the outcome we’re accustomed to. Sadly, our survival-focused brains are just trying to lend us a helping hand, yet can’t see that it is driving us towards habits, and even addictions, that could become hard to break. What to do?

Only when we begin to understand how our minds work can we begin to work with them. If you notice you’re stuck in an anxiety-distraction habit loop, then you’ve taken the first and second step — acknowledgement and understanding.

I am going to do two things this week to break my habits. Perhaps they can help you, too.

Firstly, I’m going to get back into the habit of acknowledging my emotions. That way, I can notice and address uncomfortable feelings before I distract myself. For me, this looks like a technology free morning routine; I like to pray and spend some time just being still.

Secondly, I am going to pop a timer on when I have screen time, just so I can remain aware and accountable for screen time I have.

Your go-to ways of distracting yourself may look a little different to mine, so take a moment to make a quick, simple plan. In the end, this process really boils down to knowing your own mind. Self-knowledge is always power, but it is particularly effective when it comes to working with our brains. When uncertainty abounds, step out of anxiety-distraction habit loops by bringing forward what you have evolved to do best: learn.

This week, I’m…

Trying new coffee beans from Margaret River Roasting Co. My morning coffee is a ritual that allows me to check in with myself and start my day intentionally.

Margaret River Roasting Co. beans.
Camera IconMargaret River Roasting Co. beans. Credit: Margaret River Roasting Co. Facebook

Thinking about the meal I had at King Hot Pot. Some friends and I have decided to check out a new, affordable restaurant each week. We’ve had some wins and some losses — this one was a win!

The pickle soup at King Hot Pot.
Camera IconThe pickle soup at King Hot Pot. Credit: King Hot Pot Facebook

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