Are You Stuck in the Anxiety-Distraction Feedback Loop? (2023)

Distraction is the modern day equivalent of avoiding the dangerous or unknown in ancient times. Uncertainty makes you feel anxious. Anxiety urges you to do something — most often that is to gather information. Yet, when no new information about the pandemic is available,checking the news doesn’t make you feel better.Your brains quickly learns that distraction is a pretty solid alternative. Its survival 101. The problem is that, distractions can lead to unhealthy habits, and even addiction, that are hard to break.If you’re stuck in an anxiety-distraction habit loop, you need to map out the trigger-behavior-reward process that creates and perpetuates your unwanted habits.

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(Video) Do You Feel Stuck in the Anxiety-Distraction Feedback Loop?

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As a psychiatrist specializing in anxiety and habit management, I’ve seen a lot of change over the past two months, and very little for the better. One of my patients works at his family-owned liquor store (considered an “essential” business by the state of Rhode Island). During our newly minted telehealth visits, he told me that he has been working 70+ hours a week. His business has never been busier. Several other patients have been joining the growing ranks of Netflix binge-watchers as a way to distract themselves. Others still are concerned about the “quarantine 15,” or gaining weight because they turn to food for comfort.

Whether your vice is food, alcohol, social media, work, or television, when faced with increasing anxiety, why does your brain urge you toward distractions?

Let’s start with a bit of biology.

Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Understandably, that feeling has increased on a societal level right now. Biologically, your survival brain was set up to scan territory for both food and danger. When your ancestors found a new food source, their stomachs sent a cascade of signals to their brains that resulted in dopamine firing. They then formed a memory about where the food was located to help them understand how to find it in the future. The same is true for danger. When your ancestors explored new places, they had to be on high alert, scanning for movement so that they didn’t become a food source themselves. Uncertainty helped them, and therefore people, as a species, survive.

There is a caveat, however — and this is important to understanding the relationship between anxiety and distraction. Once a place becomes familiar to people, whether it is dangerous or not, that uncertainty decreases. This means that only after your ancestors revisited a territory again and again were they able to relax.

(Video) I Am Always Stuck in My Own Head

Further Reading

Shifting back to what this means for the present day, and for you: when you become more certain, your brain uses dopamine differently. Instead of firing when you eat food or spot danger, for example, dopamine fires in anticipation of those events. Dopamine is far from a “pleasure molecule” as it has been characterized by popular literature. Once a behavior is learned, it has been most consistently associated with cravings and urges to act.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Once your ancestors knew where their food source was, they had to be prodded to go and get it.

In response to the pandemic, my patients are demonstrating exactly this same process. Whether addicted to a substance or a behavior, they 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 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 better. To you, looking at cute puppies on YouTube (again) may seem like a strange choice when you still have a big project to do. But to your brain, it’s a no-brainer. Its survival 101.

Think of it like this: Distraction is the modern day equivalent of avoiding the dangerous or unknown in ancient times. Uncertainty makes you feel anxious. Anxiety urges you to do something. In theory, that urge is there to drive you to gather information. Yet, when no new information about the pandemic is available, checking the news doesn’t make you feel better. Your brain quickly learns that distraction is a pretty solid alternative.

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. You brain will become habituated to these behaviors. You eventually will begin to need more and more of them to get the outcome you’re accustomed to.

Sadly, your survival brain is just trying to lend you a helping hand, yet can’t see that it is driving you toward habits, and even addictions, that could become hard to break. What to do?

Reading this article is a good first step. Only when you begin to understand how your mind works can you begin to work with it. If you’re stuck in an anxiety-distraction habit loop, you need to map out the trigger-behavior-reward process that creates and perpetuates your unwanted habits. This involves noticing the trigger (anxiety), the distraction behavior (eating, drinking, watching TV), and the reward (feeling better because you are distracted from the trigger). Once you identify your typical anxiety-distraction habit loops, map out when they show up. Is it in a certain context or at a particular time of day?

(Video) How anxiety keeps you trapped in a negative feedback loop

Next, begin to explore how rewarding these habit loops actually are. Your brain chooses between different behaviors based on their reward levels. Instead of trying to force yourself not to stress eat or check social media, focus on the mental and physical results of your actions. I have my patients ask a simple question: “What do I get from this?” It’s not an intellectual question, but something I have them use experientially. What does the brief relief feel like? How long does it last? Are there other effects that have boomerang consequences, like getting more anxious because you have not completed a task?

It is important to note that not all distraction is bad. It becomes a problem when the reward you seek stops being rewarding. You can explore what it’s like to eat a little versus a lot of chocolate when you’re nervous. You can explore what binging on five versus two episodes of your show du jour feels like. When you pay attention, you will likely discover a classic inverted U-shaped curve, where the pleasure of distraction plateaus and sends you sliding down, back into restlessness and worry, leading your mind to search for the next best thing.

This brings me to the last step of this process, which is to find the “Bigger Better Offer” (BBO). Because your brain chooses more rewarding behaviors, you need to identify behaviors that are more rewarding than your bad habits.

This doesn’t always mean picking an entirely new behavior. Sometimes it means stopping your current one when the balance shifts from it being helpful to harmful. Keep the phrase “how little is enough” in mind when indulging a distraction. Apply this to everything from food to TV by simply checking in with your body and mind after you’ve indulged to see if you’re satisfied. My lab has studied this by embedding a “craving tool” into a mindfulness training app (Eat Right Now) that helps people break the habit of stress or overeating. We have people pay attention as they eat, and then ask how content they feel after they’ve eaten. This way, they can link up how much (or what type of food) they’ve eaten with sensations in their bodies and minds. It helps them clearly see how unrewarding it is to overindulge, and how rewarding it is to stop when they’re full.

If your goal is to step out of your habit loop entirely, then you do need to explore BBOs that are different behaviors. For example, if you are anxious, you can use mindfulness practices to work with the anxiety itself, rather than needing to distract yourself from it. (Our lab found that mindfulness resulted in a 57% drop in anxiety scores in anxious physicians, and 63% reduction in people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder). Treating the anxiety at the source of your distraction is analogous to having some pain in your body and getting at the root cause instead of taking pain killers to temporarily numb yourself — which masks the symptoms of the problem, and can cause you to become dependent.

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.

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(Video) Why Distraction Doesn't Help Anxiety (AND WHAT TO DO INSTEAD)

FAQs

What is an anxiety feedback loop? ›

Anxiety is caused by three overlapping events: a trigger or environmental cue (public speaking or party), mental reactivity (a negative thought/self-talk), and physical reactivity (breathing rapidly, clenching fists, etc.). These form a negative feedback loop, where one begets the other.

How do I get out of the anxiety loop? ›

One important step in reversing the anxiety cycle is gradually confronting feared situations. If you do this, it will lead to an improved sense of confidence, which will help reduce your anxiety and allow you to go into situations that are important to you.

Does anxiety cause you to be distracted? ›

Being easily distracted is a common indication of persistently elevated stress such as that from behaving overly apprehensively and the semi emergency readiness state it can cause. There are many more reasons why anxiety can cause the easily distracted symptom.

How does distraction help anxiety? ›

A distraction strategy is simply an activity that takes your mind off your current emotions. Instead of putting your energy into your worries and increasing your anxiety, you can focus on other things instead to give your mind and body time to calm down.

Why do I feel stuck in a loop? ›

A cognitive/emotive loop is a repeating pattern where thoughts and beliefs produce feelings that fuel our rightness about our stories, that then further intensify our feelings, and on and on. They burn energy and get in the way of progress. They're one way we as humans get stuck.

How do you break a stress feedback loop? ›

  1. Step 1: Stop and SIGH… then look up. Sighing releases charged emotional energy. ...
  2. Step 2: Put your attention in your forehead (frontal cortex). ...
  3. Step 3: Shift your attention to your heart. ...
  4. Step 6: Bring your attention back to your frontal cortex once again. ...
  5. Step 8: Put your attention on the top of your head.

What is the 3 3 3 rule for anxiety? ›

Follow the 3-3-3 rule.

Look around you and name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. Finally, move three parts of your body — your ankle, fingers, or arm.

What are the 4 steps in the cycle of anxiety? ›

The cycle of anxiety includes four stages:
  • Stage 1. Feeling anxious and wanting to deal with it.
  • Stage 2. Attempting to avoid the situation.
  • Stage 3. Feeling a temporary sense of relief.
  • Stage 4. Returning to a state of heightened anxiety.

What high anxiety feels like? ›

Feeling nervous, restless or tense. Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom. Having an increased heart rate. Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)

Why does anxiety make it hard to focus? ›

Persistently elevated stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are the cause of the brain fog that plagues individuals with anxiety disorder. This stress response has an adverse effect on cognitive functions, such as anxiety and inability to focus and short-term memory functioning.

How does anxiety affect attention? ›

In other words, anxious individuals tend to constrict their focus of attention on the threatening stimuli when these stimuli compete for attentional resources with nonthreatening information. Several studies have found that positive affect broadens attention.

Can anxiety make it difficult to focus? ›

Psychological and cognitive symptoms of anxiety include: Poor concentration or lack of focus, distractibility. Excessive worrying or thinking something is going to go wrong.

Is it good to distract yourself? ›

Distraction can keep you safe in the moment by preventing unhealthy behaviors (such as drug use or deliberate self-harm) that occur in response to a strong feeling, as well as making a feeling easier to cope with in the long run.

What does feeling stuck mean? ›

Feeling stuck is this overarching sense that you need to do something to move you from the place you're in to the place you'd rather be – but you just can't. People describe this as being “frozen in place” and may even question themselves, their character, and their drive.

What is looping in mental illness? ›

What exactly is a neurotic loop? It is when folks get into a battle with their feelings that leaves them depleted, stressed, and feeling even more critical about themselves. Such loops usually involve three things.

Why do people get stuck? ›

We can be trapped in a situation or even a way of thinking. This leaves us unable to see another way, move (literally or metaphorically), or change. And, it usually leads to repeating the same situation or thinking, over and over again. Most often, when we are stuck, it's because we are deeply attached to a story.

What is a negative feedback loop mental health? ›

People who experience chronic stress, however, become more resistant to the signals that tell the body to “chill out” (the negative feedback loop). Because of this, the body will continue to release CRH and ACTH which leads to the adrenal glands over-producing stress hormones.

What is a feedback loop in psychology? ›

Psychology: Debates · Journals · Psychologists. A feedback loop is a system where outputs are fed back into the system as inputs, increasing or decreasing effects. Often feedback and self-correction leads to adjustments varying with differences between actual output and desired output.

What are feedback loops? ›

Feedback loop definition

A feedback loop is a process in which the outputs of a system are circled back and used as inputs. In business, this refers to the process of using customer or employee feedback (the outputs of a service or product), to create a better product or workplace.

What is a feedback loop in psychology? ›

Psychology: Debates · Journals · Psychologists. A feedback loop is a system where outputs are fed back into the system as inputs, increasing or decreasing effects. Often feedback and self-correction leads to adjustments varying with differences between actual output and desired output.

What is the meaning of feedback loop? ›

A feedback loop is a process in which the outputs of a system are circled back and used as inputs. In business, this refers to the process of using customer or employee feedback (the outputs of a service or product), to create a better product or workplace.

What is a negative feedback loop mental health? ›

People who experience chronic stress, however, become more resistant to the signals that tell the body to “chill out” (the negative feedback loop). Because of this, the body will continue to release CRH and ACTH which leads to the adrenal glands over-producing stress hormones.

What is an example of a negative feedback loop? ›

Another example of negative feedback is the regulation of the blood calcium level. The parathyroid glands secrete parathyroid hormone, which regulates the level of calcium in the blood. If calcium decreases, the parathyroid glands sense the decrease and secrete more parathyroid hormone.

What is another word for feedback loop? ›

Alternate Synonyms for "feedback loop":

feedback circuit; circuit; electrical circuit; electric circuit.

What are positive and negative feedback loops? ›

Positive feedback loops enhance or amplify changes; this tends to move a system away from its equilibrium state and make it more unstable. Negative feedbacks tend to dampen or buffer changes; this tends to hold a system to some equilibrium state making it more stable.

How do you use feedback loop in a sentence? ›

The ' feedback loop ' The University seeks to ensure that the ' feedback loop ' The University seeks to ensure that the ' feedback loop ' facilitates action arising from student feedback. Third, the web acts as a feedback loop in that it allows all people to say what is on their minds.

What are the 3 types of feedback? ›

The three forms of feedback: appreciation, coaching and evaluation.

Why is it important to learn about feedback loops? ›

Feedback loops are important to understand because they allow us to understand systems and what makes them work. If we can isolate why a system isn't working, we can fix it. If we can isolate what it takes to get a system working better, we can improve it.

What are two positive feedback examples? ›

Positive feedback you can give

"I'm really happy with your determination to finish this project. I know it wasn't easy, but I knew you could do it. Your helpful attitude makes it clear that you can continue to take on new challenges and grow with the company. Thank you for your extra effort."

What are the 2 types of feedback loops? ›

There are two types of feedback loops: positive and negative. Positive feedback amplifies system output, resulting in growth or decline. Negative feedback dampers output, stabilizes the system around an equilibrium point.

Which action is the result of negative feedback? ›

Explanation: Negative feedback tends to move a system toward stabilization and equilibrium.

Is stress a positive or negative feedback loop? ›

In physiological homeostatic loops regulated by negative feedback, stress is a condition in which there is an error signal, reflecting the difference between afferent information about actual conditions as sensed and the set point for responding, determined by a regulator (Figure 5).

What causes a positive feedback loop? ›

positive feedback loops, in which a change in a given direction causes additional change in the same direction. For example, an increase in the concentration of a substance causes feedback that produces continued increases in concentration.

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