The Cycle of Anxiety and How to Break the Cycle
By: Taylor French, LPC
Everyone has experienced anxiety in their lifetime and knows how uncomfortable anxiety can be. With this level of discomfort, it makes sense that when experiencing anxiety, people would do what it takes to reduce the feeling. However, not all strategies are made equal and some strategies that are utilized to reduce anxiety may actually fuel and maintain anxiety in the long-term.
The cycle of anxiety includes four stages, the first of which is the feeling of anxiety that is triggered by a thought, situation, or event. Anxiety is experienced in a wide range of symptoms but often includes physical and mental symptoms such as racing thoughts, muscle tension, and/or increased heart rate. Once one experiences these symptoms, they understandably want to “fix” the problem. This desire to fix the problem moves the cycle to stage two of the cycle of anxiety which is avoidance, safety behaviors, and/or reassurance seeking. Avoidance would be avoiding the situation all together, a safety behavior may include having an exit plan or bringing specific objects during anxiety provoking situations, and reassurance seeking may include asking multiple times if someone is mad at them or making someone promise that they are okay. Engaging in any of these behaviors brings us to stage three of the cycle of anxiety which is the short-term relief people are looking for! The key phrase here, though, is short-term. The problem with avoidance, reassurance seeking, or safety behaviors are that they prevent people from actually confronting and dealing with the emotion which in turn, reinforces the sense that the feeling (anxiety) and anything that causes it (situations) are dangerous and must be avoided. Not only does this often contribute to people becoming hypervigilant for signs of danger and safety which increases anxiety symptoms, but it also does not provide the opportunity to disprove the anxious thoughts which maintains the anxiety symptoms. The idea is similar with safety behaviors or reassurance seeking as when one engages in these behaviors, they become dependent on them to reduce anxiety rather than confronting the emotion and learning that the emotion is not dangerous and comes down on its own. This brings us to stage four of the cycle of anxiety which is long-term increases in the symptoms of anxiety including physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Over time, this may lead to people believing that the only way to handle anxiety is by avoiding situations or engaging in safety behaviors or reassurance seeking and not feeling confident in their ability to handle difficult situations.
To give an illustration of the cycle, imagine that you are afraid of public speaking and have just been assigned a long speech for one of your classes. When the project is assigned you experience heightened anxiety and as the due date approaches, these symptoms worsen. Now let’s say the day of your speech you wake up and your heart is racing, you have butterflies in your stomach, and you believe that you are going to embarrass yourself, so you decide to call in sick to school. This would be an example of avoidance and as a result, you would likely have an immediate reduction in those anxiety symptoms knowing that you do not have to give the speech today and can relax. However, you likely cannot avoid this speech forever so the next day when you have to return to school, you may feel even more anxious because you are no longer able to utilize avoidance to cope and feel less confident in your ability to handle the anxiety without this “coping skill.” This illustrates that in the short-term avoidance is helpful, but long-term it has major consequences.
Avoidance is a common symptom in many anxiety disorders and those who have experienced a traumatic event and may have symptoms of PTSD. In those with anxiety disorders, avoidance may be focused on a specific object or situation or may be more generalized. In those who have experienced trauma, avoidance may be focused on people, places, or events that are reminders of the trauma, or may be avoidance of certain thoughts and memories. Regardless of the source of avoidance, the outcome of the avoidance is often positive in the short-term but worse in the long-term improvement of symptoms.
Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety
If avoidance and safety behaviors are not the most beneficial approach, then what? The goal would be to reverse the cycle of anxiety by confronting the anxiety provoking situation without reassurance seeking or safety behaviors. This would likely result in a short-term increase in anxiety because the person is facing the feared situation and not avoiding it and therefore, not avoiding the emotion. However, the wonderful fact to keep in mind is that emotions are temporary and once we confront the situation, the physical and mental symptoms will naturally reduce. We can also utilize healthy coping strategies to bring anxiety to a more manageable level which leads to confidence in ones’ ability to control their responses to emotions and tolerate that emotion. With this reversed cycle of anxiety, rather than a short-term improvement in symptoms but long-term consequences, we have a short-term increase in anxiety, but a long-term benefit of increased confidence and coping.