American football practice

Why repetition is essential in reducing anxiety

Recently, I was reading a newsletter of one of the wellbeing coaches I follow. The copy contained the words "self-care is not optional" in large, bold letters several times.

People only have so much attention. There is only so much we will read before our mind wanders off. All writers know this. So, why would someone spend some of these valuable words repeating the same thing several times? And what does this have to do with anxiety?

Repetition is always important

It is not just in the mental health field that people talk about the importance of repetition. Here are some examples.

In public speaking, the adage goes:

"Tell them what you are going to tell them. Then tell them. Then tell them what you have told them."

This three-ply approach drills your message into your audience. They hear the same key points three times to make sure they remember them.

Why? Because audiences forget most of what you say. Therefore, your only chance of having them remember something is to reinforce the points you want them to take away.

Another example is sports. When I train for American football, or indeed any sport, we do the same drills over and over again. You break each skill down into an individual component and practice it again and again until it is second nature.

Why? Because in the heat the game, you do not have time to stop and think about each action. You just need to "do".

Why is repetition necessary for anxiety?

One reason is that anxiety is a memory disorder. Our minds forget the good things but are always happy to bring up the bad. We have a negative filter.

Therefore, if we want something to stick, we need to jam it in there. Repetition can help do this. To understand how we need to consider the world of cognitive behavioural therapy.

Why exposure therapy uses repetition

When you undertake exposure therapy, you repeatedly put yourself in uncomfortable situations until your anxiety starts to subside. This can take a long time, but slowly your level of panic begins to come down.

Why is repetition so important here? Because once is simply not enough.

If you have struggled with anxiety for years, or decades, you have spent a lot of time building up these anxious thought patterns.

The brain is a series of interconnected neurones. When we form an idea, this is a pattern of neurones creating connections between each other. The more we practise these thoughts, the stronger these connections become. They build up over time.

This is how learning works. Unfortunately, it means we can learn bad things as well as good. In the case of anxiety, we create negative thought patterns and then reinforce them over time.

We use exposure therapy to re-write the brain. We create new thought patterns and slowly break down the old ones while strengthening the new.

Just like the time it took to build the negative thought patterns in the first place, it takes time to build the new ones up. The only way we can do this is by repetition.

How does this apply to writing?

I use repetition a lot in my books. I will often make a point, then make the same point again with a case study, then make the same point again later in the book. Finally, I will make it one more time in the chapter summary.

Why? Because we need to strengthen those neural patterns inside our brains.

When you hear a phrase like "self-care is not optional" for the first time, you do not believe it. If you did, you would have been doing it already. Or, you would read it once, and change your life.

However, as we know, this does not work. This is because, as we have learnt, the old patterns in our mind are entrenched, and the new ones are weak.

The only way we can change this is to gradually re-write the brain through repeated repetition.

The first time you hear a phrase like "self-care is not optional", it is unlikely to have any measurable effect on you. However, it will chip away at the old thought patterns by a tiny amount.

That is all we are doing with repetition: chipping away a little each time. By the hundredth time you have heard the phrase, you might start believing it.

You might even start practising it. Maybe just once or twice at first. But, like the thought, once you start behaving that way, you strengthen the thought pattern in your brain. This causes a feedback loop in which you begin to believe it.

This goes for anything: that you can change, that you can reduce your anxiety, that you can think differently about a given situation or feeling. The more we repeat our mantra, the more we begin to believe or act on it.

Conclusion

Repetition is essential because no one incident is likely to re-write thought patterns that we have been reinforcing for years or decades. However, with repeated exposure to a new idea or concept, we can slowly chip away at these negative thoughts and replace them with new, more positive ones.

The only way this is done is with repetition: a slow and steady tide that flows in and produces the change we want for our lives.

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Published 12 February 2018. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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