Anxiety – Stopping the Cycle

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The desire to avoid situations that create anxiety can actually backfire and create a cycle that can negatively affect our lives.

Fear and Anxiety

It helps me to understand anxiety if I compare it to fear. The source of fear is ‘real’ or ‘external.’ For example, when I see a snake out hiking my flight-or-fight response kicks in and I am out of there. However, anxiety occurs when situations are uncertain or even in the absence of real danger. For instance, many people may be anxious that a snake may appear while going on a nature hike. Those with higher levels of anxiety may continue through a cycle of “what-ifs” about a potential encounter with a snake, which may result in them avoiding the hike altogether.

The Cycle of Anxiety

The Cycle of Anxiety, shown below, visually describes why anxiety can be so persistent. Typically, the cycle starts with a negative experience or the idea of an uncomfortable situation that they want to avoid in the future. Once that situation has been avoided, the brain has consciously or unconsciously found a guaranteed way to keep from experiencing that situation again. Having succeeded, the brain is now more determined to keep the cycle going.

How can you stop the cycle? Reverse the stages:

Step 1: Confront the situation

Step 2: Increase anxiety, Decrease symptoms

Step 3: Use healthy coping skills

Step 4: Increased Ability to Control Responses

Step 1 – Confront the Situation (and Reduce Safety Behaviors)

This is an important step to create an improved sense of confidence. Some people may be able to “jump into the deep end” and get it over with. Others may need to take it “step-by-step,” through a process called “graded exposure.” You start with situations that are easy to handle and work your way up to more challenging tasks.

A key component of this step is to reduce the use of “safety behaviors.” An example of a safety behavior is staying quiet in social situations with the hope of not staying something stupid or feeling humiliated. While they may appear helpful, safety behaviors prevent us from directly testing our fears and can become “self-fulfilling prophecies.” They can also take our attention off the task at hand causing us to focus more on worrying and can become reinforced when our fears don’t come true.

Step 2 – Increase Anxiety, Followed by a Decrease in Physical Symptoms

The results of initiating Step 1 will result in heightened anxiety. The safety behaviors have been stopped and you are literally facing your fears. However, as confidence increases the stress should decrease resulting in fewer physical symptoms.

Step 3 – Use Healthy Coping Skills

Stress and anxiety are normal parts of life but can become overwhelming at times. This can be especially true when overcoming anxiety. Here are some strategies to manage stress and anxiety:

  1. Identify your stressors – Find ways you can control or manage them better.
  2. Improve sleep habits – This is the foundation of mental, emotional, and physical health.
  3. Exercise – Start small at 10 minutes, 3 days a week can show significant improvements.
  4. Nutrition – Limit the consumption of caffeine, saturated fats, and foods with added sugars.
  5. Learn problem-solving techniques – Helps clarify the problem and can provide solutions to put into action.
  6. Learn calming techniques – Controlled breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and other grounding techniques can help the mind and body to become more relaxed and focused on the present rather than worrying.
  7. Increase assertiveness and communication skills – Helps you to effectively deal with challenging situations and gain confidence thus reducing stress.
  8. Reduce negative thinking – Negative thinking can make us worry more and keeps up from making positive actions.

Step 4 – Increased Ability to Control Your Reactions and Responses

Asking yourself one question can help break the anxiety cycle: “Is this fear based on reality or created by my imagination?” If the fear is unrealistic and fails the “reality check,” it can be an indication to break the anxiety using the skills learned in previous steps. Most times, you will realize that the fear is not based on reality and the anxiety will soon vanish. The ability to recognize that you can take control of identifying actual danger from imaginary threats can help you can overcome anxiety.

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