The Underlying Anxiety – Confronting a Constant Dis-ease

The importance of anxiety

As we progressed further on our journey into understanding the mechanics of addiction and the dopamine system, we kept finding ourselves returning to the subject of anxiety. Understanding anxiety was key to both (a) integrating our experience during our digital declutter and (b) understanding addiction at a deeper level.

What is anxiety and how does it relate to addiction and digital tech?

Many of us know what it feels like to experience anxiety, either in fleeting moments or in a more persistent form. A common definition of anxiety is “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” It is estimated that around 5% of the world suffers from an anxiety disorder of some type, and the prevalence is likely to be a lot higher now because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Common symptoms of anxiety include the inability to concentrate or relax, a constant feeling of being on edge and trouble with energy levels and sleeping.

Could it be that anxiety is both behind our tendency towards addictive habits around digital tech and that tech is worsening our anxiety? Is this another vicious cycle, one that could perpetuate into the future and explain why some have claimed that we live in an age where the typical feeling is one of a constant background of dis-ease and tension?

It is common to hear people speak about existing in a state where they cannot relax and are propelled from one stimulus to the next. Digital Tech is one of many factors here, but one worth exploring.

Anxiety as a habit of thought and driver of habits!

Judson Brewer’s book ‘Unwinding Anxiety’ is a compelling and practical book to help understand anxiety and how it propels many of our habitual behaviours. The idea that anxiety can both be a habit of thought and a feeling that drives addiction was particularly useful during our digital detox journey. Take the following two examples that illustrate the notion of habit loops in the context of digital tech use (trigger > behaviour > reward/outcome):

  1. Trigger: feeling bored or anxious >
    Behaviour: check phone notifications >
    Reward/Outcome: temporary distraction from the feeling of boredom and anxiety
  2. Trigger: post something on social media >
    Behaviour: worry about social judgement >
    Reward/Outcome: feeling anxious

Here we see anxiety as both a trigger and a reward/outcome in relation to using digital technologies.

Anxiety as trigger

Looking first at anxiety as a trigger for engaging in habits, it’s perhaps not surprising to think of anxiety (usually considered an unpleasant feeling state) as leading to some form of avoidance behaviour or distraction. What happens if we don’t pick up our phone or find some other form of distraction? Does anxiety persist? What does it feel like to sit with anxiety anyway?

Anxiety as outcome

Here there’s something crucial to reflect on – the habitual use of digital tech (or any other behaviour or substance for that matter) may, in part, be driven by avoidance of inner states. We almost always pick distraction rather than confrontation in these circumstances, but perhaps there is something crucial in confrontation, something we resist in our hyper-saturated, distraction-full lives. The pace of existence propels us through an ether of endless notifications and wider societal obligations. Is there even time to stop and take note? Even holidays become an opportunity to document bucket-list experiences online. Or even better still, ‘get ahead‘.

Here we see anxiety as both a trigger and a reward/outcome in relation to using digital technologies.

Matt Gwyther
A notification upon logging into LinkedIn. A delightful mix of notifications, war, self-doubt and social hierarchy to welcome you on a Monday morning.

Avoiding confrontation

When discussing procrastination, Oliver Burkeman picks up on these notions in ‘Four Thousand Weeks: Embrace your limits. Change your life’. We understand procrastination as a common place and relatively benign form of avoidance – we don’t want to complete the essay that’s due in class or fill out the report that’s due at work. It’s appealing to avoid this obligation, distract ourselves and procrastinate. He goes on to describe a deeper, existential reading, which is something like: procrastination is a way to avoid the most pressing and pertinent concerns we have in our lives. Questions like are we good enough? is how we’re spending time worthwhile? Here procrastination is not just a simple avoidance of doing something unpleasant or difficult, it’s an avoidance of these same difficult inner states and reflections on existence itself.

Digital technologies may provide the ultimate form of distraction and procrastination; instantly available, endlessly novel, and perfectly designed to hook our attention (and the dopamine system). Again we are prompted to ask some key questions:

  • To what extent are we using digital technologies to paste over our insecurities and anxieties?
  • Are we avoiding asking ourselves difficult questions about how we spend our time?
  • How often do you finish scrolling on social media and feel it was a good use of your time?

Here’s the crux: with endlessly available novelty and stimulation from tech, how often do we look inwards? It’s not just that we avoid thinking about what we truly value because it’s difficult. This has always been the case. Our argument is that the space for reflection is itself being eroded and hijacked.

Another great quote that Burkeman brought to our attention:

“Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”


Time to reflect

  • What are your habit loops in relation to digital technologies?
  • What habit loops drive you to pick up your phone?
  • Does anxiety trigger the use of certain digital technologies for you?
  • How do you feel after spending time engaging in these technologies? Do you ever feel more anxious?

Techniques to cope with habit loops and anxiety

Here Brewer’s book ‘Unwinding Anxiety’ holds many of the clues, a few of which we will summarise here:

  • Map out your own habit loops. Use the Trigger > Behaviour > Reward / Outcome model
  • Inspect and unpick the habit loops and try to insert something more rewarding into the loop, e.g.

    Trigger: feel bored or anxious >
    Behaviour: check phone notifications >
    Reward/Outcome: temporary distraction from feeling
  • Once you have mapped out this pattern and found some space for reflection, you are more likely to notice the pattern in action. At this point catch both the trigger (anxiety) and respond (behaviour) with Curiosity & Kindness, then see what the reward / outcome is!

Curiosity & kindness

Curiosity and Kindness are in Brewer’s words ‘Bigger Better Offers’ – they are more rewarding and can help to break negative patterns. Emotions associated with habit loops often feel constrained and closed, whereas Curiosity and Kindness represent an opening up.

When we are stuck in habit loops, we are not open to growth; whereas when we feel curiosity, we are primed for growth, a phenomena Brewer backs up with research evidence showing curiosity boosting dopamine levels and increasing the link between the reward-based system and hippocampus. This can be described as curiosity improved learning!

Loving kindness seems to decrease activity in the self-judgement habit loop areas of the brain.

Brewer describes his variation of the RAIN practice (Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Note) as an approach to dealing with inner states and breaking habit loops, i.e. rather than avoiding feelings and moving to distractions and habit loops, run through this process instead. Recognise anxiety, accept it, investigate how it manifests in mind and body and note what is happening moment-to-moment

I prefer Tara Brach’s version of RAIN, which she described at length in ‘Radical Compassion’. The main difference is that the final step is termed ‘Nurture’ (instead of Brewer’s ‘Note’). Nuturing is about offering loving kindness to ourselves and speaking to our inner child. Brach’s book is endlessly nourishing for those taken by this approach and links in nicely with the work on addiction.

“Between the stimulus and the response there is a space, and in that space is your power and your freedom.”

Tara Brach


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