Updated: Jul 14, 2021
Or how to ditch your automatic behaviours in favour of curiosity and genuine interest.
What do you do when you feel a bit bored or slightly anxious? I know what I do. I reach out for my phone and start aimlessly scrolling my social media feed.
It’s not something I was born with, neither was I taught this behaviour at school. So how come I do it every time I feel a slight discomfort? Because at some point I created this pattern, this habit.
There was a trigger (stress, anxiety, fear, etc.)—that started this behaviour (reach for my phone) — and my phone with social media feed became my immediate reward. And as we know, reward triggers feel-good hormones in our brain. So we hold on to those behaviours, even if they don’t do us any good.
What do we do about it?
We might want to become more aware of when and why we go down the automatic habits route.
We need to retrain our brain to stop craving that reward.
How do we do it?
There are different ways. We could train our willpower. We could replace useless reward with something useful (e.g. reach out for a book instead). But in this article, we will look at another option where we delay a reward and replace it with curiosity. This exercise is part of the mindfulness training Unwinding Anxiety app created by Judson Brewer MD, PhD.
Anticipation of reward is what makes reaching for our phones (cigarettes, food, etc.) so sweet and alluring. Even though we know it’s not good for us.
Curiosity also triggers feel-good hormones just like a reward itself.
The idea behind this mindfulness exercise is to become curious about actions you take when you feel the pull of the phone (or any other object that you use as a reward). We need to pay attention to our body, to the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that are flying through while we are experiencing this desire for an immediate reward.
Instead of giving in to our urges or becoming overanalytical about our thought processes, we need to observe and investigate our own bodies. This will help us be aware of what is happening in our bodies rather than fall into the trap of an automatic habit.
Curiosity lets us tap into our natural capacity for wonder and interest, putting us right in that sweet spot of openness and engagement. From this state of mind, we’re more empowered to help ourselves break old habits and build new ones. — Judson Brewer, MD, PhD
Get comfortable sitting or standing.
Remember your latest experience when you reached out for your phone. Maybe you felt bored, stressed out or anxious. Try remembering what the urge to do something felt like.
Listen to your body. What sensation is prevalent in your body right now? Choose a word to describe it, such as tension, discomfort, pulsation, etc.
Can you sense discomfort in any other part of your body? Does your left part feel more uncomfortable? Does any part feel different to the rest of the body?
Get curious about other sensations in your body. How do they feel? How would you describe them? Do you have butterflies in your tummy? Or maybe your head is hurting? Get curious about it.
Travel after your thoughts and after your feelings. Observe them without analysing them. Only apply curiosity and interest. You may even want to start your observation with a curious exhale such as ‘hmm’ or ‘hmm, interesting.’
An example of a practice
Aim: to break a compulsive desire to reach for my phone whenever I am slightly bored or uncomfortable.
Meditation: ‘I feel tense in my chest. There is this sense of discomfort in my body. I wonder how tense it would get if I remembered another occasion when I grabbed my phone the minute I realised I was left alone in the room. I feel more tension on the right. I wonder if it’s something to do with it being my dominant hand. I also feel a sort of butterflies in my tummy. I usually feel them when I am excited. I must be excited about the prospect of opening my phone.’
Instead of simply grabbing my phone and scrolling it, as usual, I've become curious about sensations in my body. I paid attention to the feelings I felt. I tried to describe them and label them as much as I could. I then remembered another occasion, which in return triggered another memory where I felt ‘excited’ about opening my phone. I realised I was hiding behind my phone. I didn't want to experience discomfort. But this time I continued to journey along with my feelings and sensations. I didn't open the feed in the end. I didn't need to. This exercise fulfilled the need for an instant reward.
So next time you feel this compulsive need to light a cigarette, reach for another cookie or scroll that social media feed — ask yourself where in the body you can feel any sensation. Then describe the sensation and see what else your body might tell you about this trigger and this habit.
Be curiously aware of what’s going on and you will retrain your brain to do what you want, not what it’s used to.