Even With Motivation, Unconscious Anxiety Blocks Improvement of Habits

Converting to healthier habits could mean confronting fears we may not normally acknowledge…

All living things are driven to avoid pain. Unconscious systems compel them to select – without awareness – choices that have become familiar and proven safe.

Human beings are no exception. They are motivated to avoid pain, including psychological pain, be that anguish, agitation, or unsettledness. We can use the umbrella term ‘anxiety’ for such states. Humans don’t like being anxious. No matter how people think or claim they are making a decision, they will usually choose the familiar and reassuring path from amongst the options available in any given circumstances. Only rarely do they choose a path that gives rise to greater anxiety. Thus, set patterns, even if corrosive and undermining, win over because they are familiar and sufficiently placatory. The person feels comforted even though they know full well that their choices aren’t optimally productive. The motivator that actually drives the choice of action is the desire to feel settled. Even the loftiest aspirations (get sober, lose weight, win a race) collapse under the subtly seductive processes of anxiety avoidance.

Determinism Versus Free Will

Often in life, one feels constrained by circumstances; it feels like there are no choices available by which one can bring about changes. Examples include accident of birth (“you can’t choose your parents“), certain aspects of genetic inheritance, and the unfolding of the universe in ways which no-one can control. These might be called fate, or acts-of-god, or the determined facts of life. No exertion of will can alter them.

In human affairs, the counterpoint to determinism is free will, the sphere in which choices are made. While it may seem that some questions are determined and some are subject to choice, in fact the line between “I can’t” from “I won’t” is often unclear. This distinction is pivotal in our discussion.

Self-awareness is a cornerstone of free will. Acknowledging that there are indeed choices, then analyzing and modifying them, requires both insight and a willingness to be unsettled. Changing one’s mind, if the patterns and attitudes are deeply rooted, is a serious undertaking. Inasmuch as altering ways of thinking can lead to fresh behaviors, the reverse is also true; habitually practicing different behaviors can reconfigure the brain. Either way, there will be a period of instability.

Resisting Change

Sometimes coaches encounter a stuck client, with one or more counterproductive attitudes, beliefs, and/or habits. Examples include food choices – what to eat, and how much; the relationship with alcohol, caffeine, and/or sugar; and persistent overtraining. These habits are often ingrained through repetition, familiarity, and collusion from family and friends who may enable and confirm the choices.

One of the big payoffs that helps maintain a habit is that the person feels calmer and more manageable with the habit than without it. The individual has found a way to keep anxiety under control by eating certain things, drinking beer or wine, loading up on tea or coffee, or imbibing sugary stuff. The reward centers in the brain love these things, and the habits can verge on (or even become) genuine addictions. Such a person may react defensively when asked about their choices. Sensing that their coping strategies for fending off anxiety are being challenged, they provide spurious rationales for maintaining the habit.

Few people deliberately risk feeling unsettled, agitated, or uneasy. In my training as a psychotherapist I was steeped in the ‘existential school’, a central tenet of which is the idea that being able to be anxious is a healthy thing. Ordinary, everyday levels of anxiety are not pathologized, and no cure or remedy is sought.

If, for example, a person is exploring changes to their alcohol consumption, one might well ask “What do you imagine will happen to you if you don’t drink?” Oftentimes the simple suggestion to ‘take a month off, as an experiment’ is met with shock and horror. The extreme response reveals a lot about the role of that habit in the person’s relationship with their anxiety.

Most habits, being habitual (of course) are intertwined with strategies for maintaining a familiar sense of ease. When the idea of altering or – gasp – quitting a habit is proposed, the alarm bells of “how will I cope, what will I do?” ring loudly.

Most habits, being habitual (of course) are intertwined with strategies for maintaining a familiar sense of ease. When the idea of altering or – gasp – quitting a habit is proposed, the alarm bells of “how will I cope, what will I do?” ring loudly.

Anyone faced with the prospect of increased anxiety is likely to persist with or even redouble the palliative habit. For example, asking someone who is fairly motivated to lose weight to alter their food choices is also inviting them to feel unsettled – and they may indeed be more motivated to quell anxiety than to change their habits, however suboptimal the habits may be. This is not at all unusual. Particular anxieties, and the familiar balancing acts keeping them in check, are powerful driving forces in habit maintenance.

Furthermore, the impulse to placate oneself compels all aspects of what may be called the customary repertoire. There are three components to this:

  • How I think about an issue, and reflect on it, most usually using established patterns of introspection;
  • How I speak about it, both to myself (as self-talk) and others;
  • How I act, whether or not my behaviour seems to be in line with my values and aspirations.

Getting Unstuck

For many people, athletes included, being unhappy about the state they’re in is more tolerable than the agitation and anxiety that come with changing habits. This is a conundrum.

In assessing the circumstances of a stuck client, I often use a top-down approach: Consider the broad circumstances: What is the issue? Is it about food, weight, ‘substances,’ self-discipline, mindset… what’s the big picture?

What do I know about this issue? What are the general challenges? How do people grapple with them? What seems to help or hinder?

Then I dig deeper: What are the details of this person’s predicament? How long has the issue been around? How big a problem is it? How do they talk to themselves about this issue – what ‘script’ are they running whilst reflecting? What are their circumstances, including influences of family and friends? How do they discuss the matter with others? What have they tried already?

Further digging: What’s their level of motivation? How self-disciplined and industrious are they? How much willpower do they have? Objective (my take on these) and subjective (what they say) aspects can be woven together. The reality is somewhere in between.

Nearing the payoff: How strong is this person’s commitment? Crucially, are they sufficiently motivated by their goal that they’ll be able to tolerate the unsettling effects of new and (possibly) initially unrewarding habits? In short, are they more committed to change than to familiarity?

Making Changes and Weathering the Storm

Once a change is attempted, we need to monitor the ongoing reactions to the new routine. There’s a good chance that their previous habits, which are now being revised and supplanted, provided some sense of reward, succor, and nourishment, both emotional and psychological. If this person senses the absence of reassuring thoughts and feelings associated with the previous habits, are we inviting them to simply persevere and cope with anxiety without seeking a remedy, or do we explore the options for healthier and sufficiently reassuring substitutes and side behaviors that will help the client through the difficult time? What would the athlete prefer? No matter how we proceed, some capacity for bearing with unsettledness is going to be needed.

It’s important to ask, “What will you do if the going gets tough?” The answer might be, “nothing,” i.e. just be unsettled, stick with the program, and press ahead. Or the athlete might prefer alternative ‘strategies’ to deal with the difficulties, such as meditation, scheduled consults with the coach, or an unrelated activity such as writing poetry, drawing wildlife, or singing that could help the individual stay on track, and avoid falling back.

The collaboration between client and (in this example) coach requires a strong rapport. The client needs to keep trusting the coach even while feeling deprived or punished, so the atmosphere must be one of both parties working together in pursuit of healthy change.

There may be discrepancies between thought and deed. What the client decides to do, how they describe it to you, and what they’re actually doing may not tally. That’s often where the unsettledness can be found, and will likely be the nuts and bolts of your work together.

If the client was really stuck, then the mental structures dedicated to a placid life will leap into action, offering up words and phrases designed to persuade the host that the old habits were really ok, and that change is too difficult and not necessary after all. Psychological pressure from the affect-regulation centers of the brain (balancing familiarity, anxiety, and aspiration) can be intense. Two questions I have found productive in exploring stuckness are, “What would galvanize motivation?” and, “In what circumstances would success be guaranteed?”

Resilience and the Ability to Improve Habits

While some changes are pretty straightforward, changing well established habits always brings a component of anxiety. The motivation has to be strong enough to tolerate anxiety. The resilient athlete can deal with anxiety long enough to adapt to needed changes. This does not mean desensitization, or habituation, as the anxiety is still present in awareness. Resilience is the ability to bear with anxiety without seeking an escape. The athlete doesn’t have to thrive, necessarily. That may be unrealistic until the new habits are well established.

If a person can be coached adequately to bear with unsettledness and agitation, and can resist the call to familiar habits, their chances of configuring a new repertoire of thinking and behaving are greatly increased.

Head Coach Paul Page-Hanson, M.A. practiced as a psychotherapist in London for over 10 years. Now in San Francisco, he is a licensed cycling coach, massage therapist and body work specialist working with all levels of abilities on the dirt and road. Paul is available for mental skills training and coaching as well as bike fitting and riding skills clinics.