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Break Your Dissertation Worry Habit in Three Simple Steps | Issue 291

Summary: Discover how curiosity can end your worry habit forever.

Estimated read time: 6 minutes that will save you a lifetime of needless worry and self-sabotage.


By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor

"Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere." ~ Erma Bombeck


Do you recognize this scenario? 


You are poised to work on your dissertation. . . then a small scary thought pops up, e.g., you are behind schedule, your writing stinks, you missed some critical resources, your advisor will be displeased. The small terror escalates into cascading fears. Visions of future humiliation and failure suck your energy, and you abandon your dissertation efforts. [Rinse and repeat.]

Each repetition fortifies your worry habit while weakening your productivity and well-being. You could be on the road to a panic attack. Your dissertation slides into the "Mission Impossible" zone. 

It doesn't have to be this hard. Perhaps you've tried various worry-reducing hacks—only to experience a rebound. Are you ready for a more permanent solution?

You now can implement a groundbreaking approach for overcoming worry and other self-sabotaging habits in three simple steps. Studies show it works, as my clients and I can also testify. It could be just what you need. [Note: If you have severe or persistent anxiety symptoms that impede daily living, please seek professional help.]


Worry is a behavior—not an emotion 

Worry is not an emotion—it's a behavior. That's good news because you have more control over your behavior than your feelings. 

Maladaptive habitual behaviors can be short-circuited through a simple approach that integrates learning and mindfulness principles, explains Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., of Brown University's Mindfulness Center. 

He first used the approach to help clients overcome nicotine addiction, observing it outperformed the existing gold standard treatment. Then he began applying it to other self-sabotaging behaviors, notably worry, as he details in his book, Unwinding Anxiety

This new approach is clearly suitable for addressing common ABD self-sabotaging behaviors—worry, avoidance, procrastination, and self-judgment. Let's examine worry for illustrative purposes, and you can generalize to other self-destructive habits. 

Entrenched worry is a habit, a well-worn "loop," just like any habit. Evolution, Brewer explains, wired us to develop habit loops through reward-based learning that goes like this: 

We see some food that looks good, our brain says, "Calories! Survival!" We eat the food, we taste it — it tastes good. And especially with sugar, our bodies send a signal to our brain that says, "Remember what you're eating and where you found it." We lay down this context-dependent memory and learn to repeat the process next time. See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward.

Simple, right? Well, after a while, our creative brains say, "You know what? You can use this for more than just remembering where food is. You know, next time you feel bad, why don't you try eating something good so you'll feel better?" We thank our brains for the great idea, try this and quickly learn that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we're mad or sad, we feel better. 


But Bad Habits No Longer Serve You

This trigger-behavior-reward process creates all habit loops, including worry. But how can worry be rewarding? 


At some point, a stimulus triggered your worrying behavior, resulting in a reward. Your brain duly noted the association of worry with reward. Now whenever the trigger appears, your brain tells you to start worrying without any conscious effort. 


As Brewer observes, worrying gives us the illusion of control. Our mind churns away on a problem—and we feel we are somehow doing something to fix things. While that may offer short-term relief, worrying usually makes the situation worse. It is essentially a gamble with very long odds. 


Habits can save us precious time and energy, but their very mindlessness becomes problematic when they persist after their reward value vanishes. Unfortunately, we are not likely to notice when a habit loses its effectiveness. Although the reward was downgraded to a result (and a likely undesirable one), we mindlessly persist in worrying. 


"Worrying won't stop the bad things from happening. It just stops you from enjoying the good." ~ AnonymousTweet this


How to Break a Bad Habit In Three Steps

Brewer spells out the three steps for understanding and breaking self-sabotaging habits. Let's take the example of anxiety and worry (and you can generalize to other behaviors, e.g., procrastination, self-judgment, and avoidance). 


(1) Map Your Habit Loops

When you feel anxiety from your dissertation or other sources, it becomes a trigger for various behaviors. Some may offer momentary relief but potential health hazards, as in this case: 

Trigger: Feel anxious 
Behavior: Eat something sweet 
Result: Be distracted from anxiety 

However, in the most pernicious cycle, anxiety reinforces itself through worrying behavior: 


Trigger: Feel anxious 
Behavior: Worry (ruminate on what's wrong, what could go wrong, etc.) 
Result: Feel more anxious 

Mapping powerfully exposes the truth about our bad habits: Rewards are at best fleeting but more often malignant and costly. To stop the triggering effect, your brain needs to get this message by becoming curious. 


"Emotions are data, not directives." ~ Susan David | Tweet this


(2) Get Curious about Loops & Update Their Reward Status

The next time a feeling of anxiety pops up, become curious about your moment-to-moment experience of being triggered. Go ahead and engage in the habitual behavior—but mindfully. Notice what thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations accompany your worrying, avoiding, or procrastinating behaviors. What are you getting from these behaviors in the moment?

In Brewer's highly effective smoking cessation programs, for example, smokers are encouraged to smoke when the urge hits them—but to do so mindfully. One participant reported that mindful smoking "smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!" Smoking wasn't "cool" anymore, she realized, and, moreover, "it tasted like s***." Paying attention led to disenchantment with smoking—a huge step toward quitting for good.

I got curious about some occasional anxiety, finding it led to either worrying or to procrastinating behaviors. In the former case, the result was a flood of dire thoughts and unpleasant emotions—hardly rewarding! Procrastinating behaviors, e.g., fixing a cup of tea, offered a pleasant respite, but my mindful experience of later consequences ranged from uncomfortable to disastrous—emotionally, financially, and relationally. My brain took note. 

Mindfully immerse yourself in both immediate and long-term consequences of your undesirable behaviors. Fully experience the lack of sufficient payoff until your brain registers it. Letting the bad news sink in changes everything.

Now your brain is primed to ditch the self-sabotaging habit for something better. 



(3) Use Mindfulness to Discover the "Bigger Better Offer"

Once your brain becomes disenchanted with the old loops, it naturally moves to something more rewarding—a "bigger, better offer" or "BBO," in Brewer's parlance (and as I discovered). 

Sometimes just stepping out of the old loop sparks a BBO, as it did for me. Experiment with mindfulness practices (and you'll find many in the card deck and app below). Ask what actions would lead to a more fulfilling, vibrant life. 


You may wish to try one of Brewer's journal prompts: "How might my life improve if I could replace anxiety habit loops with new habits without the 'side effects' of avoidance, numbing, or acting to excess in some way?" 


Although you cannot banish all negative emotions, you can choose how to respond to them. What behaviors would ensure healthy experiences and outcomes for you? Here are some possibilities. 

Old Trigger: Anxiety 
New Behavior: Take a nature walk (or do yoga, journal, dissertate, call a supportive friend, etc.) 
True Reward: Feel energized and return to dissertation work 

You now have created an opportunity to design habits for well-being and success. Imagine your dissertation process with a worry-free mindset. Finishing a dissertation presents sufficient challenges without adding unnecessary suffering. 

Here's wishing you an end to needless worry—and the experience of something bigger and better during and after your dissertation journey! 

P.S. For additional information and support, see Brewer's highly recommended "Unwinding Anxiety" resources below. Also consider a coach to help you nurture healthy habits, develop sustainable progress, and celebrate your wins. Request a complimentary consultation with one of our positive psychology dissertation coaches here.


"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." ~ Buddhist proverbTweet this



Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind. The book. 
Unwinding Anxiety card deck 
Unwinding Anxiety app 
A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit. Brewer's TED talk. 



An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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