How to break the cycle of fear in habit formation

Recently we covered self care ideation and how there are practical and realistic ways to love yourself beyond the keywords and SEO. Today we will talk about aversion, procrastination and habit forming when it causes some fear response or avoidance behaviour. Being able to form new habits and behaviours is complex and difficult as it requires a lot of internal rewiring. So, we will start from the beginning of the process. We’ll talk about why this happens to begin with, what causes it and strategies to change it.

Why we do what we do?

There is no correct answer to this, as depending on the severity and context of the issue it can be one of many things. However, it all breaks down to one key thing – it is something that ultimately serves you. I’m reluctant to use the word benefits, as no one has depression or anxiety because it benefits them. In saying that, your brain is smart, and it tries to adapt to the environment and the chemicals it produces to function, even in states when it is not optimal.

But this isn’t an article about the chemical compositions of major and minor mental illnesses. It’s about habit formation, but it’s important to understand how these mental states can really affect your ability to form new habits for yourself, even if they are beneficial to you.

For instance, in my personal life I’m having a hard time keeping up with personal hygiene and other fundamental things to keep my body healthy. But my mind is so overwhelmed just existing right now that it’s just not prompting me to do things beneficial for my health. So, not showering – taking medication that involves touching myself or anything that requires an incision into my body. Even though I know – logically and emotionally that I need to take these medicines to be well.

It’s causing for me an adverse reaction. Even thinking about doing these things cause me a certain amount of physical anxiety and emotional strain. Thus, me not doing these things or thinking about them causes me to get that bit of a dopamine hit for not doing them as a reward. As far as my chemical body is concerned, it’s gotten me out of danger and therefore my body should be rewarded for running away from the reaction.

So it is now associating not taking my medicine and that running away from discomfort with a sympathetic chemical reaction.

This can work against us, chemicals in are body are impossible to reason with. They are the things that keep our body together and informs our bodies on what to do. If I continue this pattern of not taking my meds or fighting the urge to take my meds with success, it will only be harder to implement taking my meds because it’s chemically associating itself.

For me, avoidance is how these things manifest in me. For others, this can turn into something much harder to combat, which is fear or phobia. Have you ever wanted to do something so much that you ended up becoming just pure afraid of doing it or having any association with it? It doesn’t have to be anything to do with self care. It could be a fear of heights or spiders, which it is in my instance.

But what happens when you get to a stage where you are so anxious and upset around the thoughts of being in contact with things like water that you become hydrophobic? So, this makes drinking water, taking baths or showers far more complex. Fear increases the stress hormone cortisol in your system. If you have previously seen times like brushing your teeth or taking baths as something that was a relaxing activity but is now not sending those reassuring chemicals associated with calmness and relaxation and have been replaced with a stress response. This can be a challenging thing to overcome.

There are a few things you can do to change your associations around things that had been a source of relaxation and now cause you stress or anxiety.

Key among them is to be exposed to the thing you fear.

Exposure therapy in controlled situations is a well-researched tactic to combat some specific phobias. This does not mean that I’m telling you to jump into a pool to cure your hydrophobia! What you need is slow and controlled exposure in a way that you can incorporate it into your life without its existence being seen to your body and your mind as a threat.

A plan for treating hydrophobia and being able to work up to incorporate water-related activities into your life is by working on it step by step and this is something that needs to be done over months, not weeks or days. The risk of doing exposure therapy too quickly is that you end up building up that fear response instead of disarming it, which is what you want to do.

The goal is to reincorporate these instances into your life again like they have always been there are as little of a threat to you as a cushion you have on your sofa. Trust is a muscle. We build it up. It is understood or implicity given. For example, when you go to sit down on a chair you trust that the chair will support your weight and that you will not fall over because you’ve sat on chairs before and know what to expect. The same is what we’re trying to develop with building in a new habit or breaking free of something that doesn’t serve us.

In our instance with hydrophobia. For the first two weeks, all I’d want someone to do is to have a glass of water beside the fridge or bathroom. (Yes, even if you’re not cripplingly afraid of water) I’d want you to place it in a place where you go by it regularly in your day to day and you don’t have to interact with it. It can just be placed there without you really considering it and go about your days as normal.

That’s it. This is around changing the relationship of how we view something that threatens us. If we can prove to ourselves through non threatening exposure that things will not hurt us, that is the reassurance we’re giving to our mind and our bodies.

After a while, you’re not even going to notice it’s there. It will blend into the background, much like a piece of art on your wall. It’s just going to be there, and it’s all gravy.

When that happens, I want you to put another glass in another common place like your bathroom. You don’t have to interact with it; you don’t have to do anything with it. Just have it there and repeat the exercise till you feel you don’t even really notice its presence anymore.

How does this help me take a bath? You may be wondering. But much like all of this is manifesting for you didn’t just happen overnight similarly neither will the cure. You will build up your trust with a system is in place to help support you, and this should be a plan that you should curate as appropriate to your needs with the support of your personal support network.

This process has no timeline – it will take as long as it takes. But these are the foundations for changing your associations emotionally, physically and chemically to a phobia or habit that you are trying to change. Remember something key, emotion = motion.

If we can catch each other when we’re in a loop of emotions or frustration, we can change it by changing our state.

Tony Robbins goes into this a lot and this is because it physiologically changes what is happening in your body when you are feeling a set of emotions or doing something in a pattern.

An example I can give you is today. When I was writing up this article, I was just out of surgery and got diagnosed with another set of nasty stuff. It’s something I’m hoping to cover in another article, but I was ruminating a lot about Mark. There was a part of me that in some fairy tale imagined him being there when I woke up and that things would be ok. Then I started falling down the emotional rabbit hole of “what if he doesn’t come home” “I’m in so much pain and discomfort and I have no one here.” and I just was spiralling but at one stage I could catch myself and I stood up and at the top of my lungs I screamed NEXXXXXXT!!!!

And I felt better.

I could control and choose my state.

You can too. It doesn’t matter how able-bodied you are, whether or not you can stand. This is about changing your state, to change the chemicals in your brain from you keeping from patterning it out the way you normally do.

Mel Robbins (unrelated to Tony) deems this as pulling the emergency brake.

None of these responses are your fault, your body and brain do so much on autopilot that it has this in place for you because it’s trying to protect you from something. Or is making things as easy as possible for your daily brain to cope with it. But what is important to know is that through the right strategies and mechanisms you can control your life and make the changes you wish to see.

On Grief

Sometimes the light can just be blinding. Today, was one of those days for me.

The first proper day of spring/summer with an uncharacteristically bright and warm day for Dublin. In an attempt to take advantage of this glorious day, I decided that for IMG_20170505_125248_619my walk day that I was going to spend some time in my local park. I was surrounded by families and friends taking advantage of the weather by sharing their time and presence with each other.

Critical life events were held this beautiful day, and lovers were meeting in the sunshine, toddlers were learning how to use their tricycles, young children were learning how to rollerskate. Even a couple of elderly couples were out in the sun making slow paced loops around the central lake of the park. It was a symphony of noise and sound and life.

I got asked to take a lot of photos today – walking on my own I was more often than not stopped by new mothers asking me to help them capture a moment. I would oblige taking a couple of shots of them before moving on. There were a few shots that I dare will make it onto a few mantle pieces in a few weeks. It is hard to take a poor shot today! It impressed upon me the importance of days like today in the scheme of life. You need moments of reprieve, moments of light, moments of life.

Even if you don’t feel you have any to give right now yourself.

My Father passed away suddenly on the 1st of Septemeber 2015, and my Brother had died on the 18th of September 1995. My mother still lives with the grief of this on daily basis. AIMG_20170507_130457_920fter all, no parent should have to bury their child. Nor, should a widow be made so young. Today was not one of her better days, but none the less
I found her out in the sun.

She asks me like she always does if I’ll join her at the Chinese. To which, I alway reply a No. She now maintains a tradition from my childhood of going out to dinner at the same Chinese with her mother and her brother. How she copes with her grief is by wrapping herself around her memories and burning them into her memory. Enduring in her memories is her weapon for keeping her grief at bay.

I’ve seen that grief be a double-edged sword, providing solice and paralysis. I watch her battle daily with her sadness through her good days and bad. She goes out on days and is around my father’s family when I know deep down she would prefer to howl. She does it to maintain a connection because that is how she keeps her memories alive.

My grief has been a different experience for me.

My grief has challenged me with my emotions and my sense of self. There were times in the early stages of my grief – particularly after the first year where everything I had previously known had come into question. I had a lot of other life events that happened in those two years; moving home to care for mam in her darkest times, moving out into my space again, getting jobs and leaving jobs. It’s taken until now to appreciate my grief and how my grief is a tangled knot. A sadness of the loss of a key figure in my life, the physical and psychological exhaustion of dealing with emotions I’m not used to feeling like rage and resentment. My personal relationships with the people who I cared about became deeper ensnared in that grief, some of my long term relationships with people have survived this while other haven’t.

It’s made me afraid. I would have considered myself to be quite fearless, but nothing changes you quite like grief. Suddenly I found myself not just grieving the loss of my father but friends, lovers and myself.

It’s made me more reluctant to trust myself and any new relationships I may wish to seek. Simply because life is complicated, and right now I can’t articulate my needs in a way that doesn’t feel selfish. That may not be grief, but it is fear. I need to start getting used to putting myself out there again, and to accept that rejection is a part of the process of life. This is also an acknowledgment of the element of grief in that; that longing for something that hasn’t happened, or the fear of doing something immeasurably damaging to the people who are new in your life who don’t know the reasoning. That fear of judgment. The not wanting to drag people through it, because you do care.

That is one of the biggest juxtapositions of life, is that even surrounded by all of this light and all of these moments with people who we know will love us and want to be there for us, we refuse to let them in. Today was one of those days, not just for me, but for an acquaintance of mine who is going through a battle with her grief.

Her pain is acute, and right now for her intolerable. I understand her grief, and I understand that the psychological burden on her right now is insurmountable to her.  What’s worse is there is nothing I can say to her to ease her pain, there is nothing I can do to protect her. I, like so many of her friends and loved ones, want so desperately to protect her. But, there is no amount of coaxing her to the sun or consoling her with motivational themes about her purpose or with assurances that things will get better that will make her realise this until she can face the light.


Helpless and worried, we do what we can by gathering together. Today we went and painted. We gave sound to concerns for her husband, as he deals with the unknown of what’s to come. Painted walls like canvases with our shared grief and found comforted in each other shared colors as we prayed in the shade.

As the sun passes behind the hills, and the moon rises I’m reminded and reassured that while the sun might be blinding, the stars still shine. That gives me hope.


Hope for me, and hope for all of us who walk a road to dawn.