The vicious cycle of Anxiety

People who suffer from anxiety have two things in common: They tend to overestimate danger and underestimate their ability to cope with it. Anxiety is a mind and body reaction to stressful, dangerous or unfamiliar situations. It is a feeling of unease, worry or fear. We all get anxious at times. But did you know that anxiety is actually necessary to help us to function well?

First and foremost, anxiety is built into our primate origins as a warning system. Imagine never being anxious or nervous: how would you know how to take care of yourself?
How would you know not to run across a busy road? Or to watch your step when walking along the edge of a cliff? Or to be wary when approaching a potentially dangerous animal? Feelings of anxiety are there to guide us to take care of ourselves. It is very hard to shut anxious feelings off: they are hard-wired into our neurons. Anxiety helps us detect and attend to potential threats so that we can avoid danger. Anxiety is also good for enhancing motivation and boosting performance levels which is very useful for when we are going for a job interviews or sitting important exams.

How anxiety affects performance

However, anxiety becomes problematic when: It happens too often, It goes on for a long time and It stops us from doing things that we want to do.

What are the different types of Anxiety?

Anxiety can manifest itself in a number of different forms and each one is characterised by a particular type of fear.  Some of the most common ones are:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)  –   People with GAD report excessive worry about non-specific life events such as health, finances, work, or relationships. The amount of worry is normally out of proportion to the actual danger. 

Health anxiety  –  People with health anxiety are preoccupied with having or acquiring a serious illness. They frequently seek reassurance about their health but fail to feel reassured. 

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)  –  A person with OCD might have thoughts or images which are intrusive (obsessions), and may feel compelled to carry out actions to relieve the accompanying anxiety (compulsions). 

Panic attacks and panic disorder   –   People who suffer from panic experience sudden feelings of terror and doom which may seem to occur ‘out of the blue’. Attacks are typically fairly short-lived but can be re-triggered and last for longer periods. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)  –  PTSD follows a traumatic life event where the individual felt that their life or bodily integrity was in danger, or witnessed something similar. As well as an ongoing sense of threat that lasts beyond the end of the actual danger, PTSD is accompanied by vivid memories of the event replaying in the person’s mind. 

Social anxiety disorder (Social phobia)  –  People with social phobia are afraid that other people will think badly of them (fear of negative evaluation) and so they take steps to prevent this from happening.

Specific phobia  People with a phobia are afraid of a specific object, animal, or situation. They might know that their fear is irrational or out of proportion, but will nevertheless try to avoid the feared object or situation.

So what triggers it?

If a person is already in an anxious state, one stressful life event might be all it takes to trigger an anxiety disorder.   The top life stressors are:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce or separation
  • Getting married
  • Pregnancy
  • Relational abuse or conflict
  • Loss of a job
  • Retirement
  • Serious illness or injury

What keeps anxiety going?

If you feel anxious, it seems logical that you will do things to reduce your anxiety or avoid the stressor altogether. This strategy helps by decreasing your anxiety levels because you have distracted or avoided putting yourself in a distressing situation. However, while avoidance makes anxiety better in the short term it will not eliminate it and actually makes things worse long term. In addition to this many people use “safety behaviours” to help them cope with the anxiety. This may include prescription medication, narcotics, alcohol, constantly on your mobile phone or ensuring you are never alone. Again, these safety behaviours help short term but ultimately keep the vicious anxiety cycle going. When you become dependent on them you do not learn how to work through the cause of the anxiety. What if one day, your safety net was not available to you? How would you cope? Instead, you try to supress the emotion which actually has the reverse effect of intensifying it which can result an anxiety disorder.
anxiety cycle

How to break the anxiety cycle?

The good news is that you can turn this cycle around and overcome anxiety. This is achieved by gradually looking at what is at the root of the anxiety. This will lead to an improved sense of confidence, which will help reduce your anxiety and allow you to start living your life without constant fear/worry. A counsellor/psychotherapist is trained to help you to build your confidence slowly, using CBT and teaching you skills to challenge your fears and overcome the crippling impediment of anxiety.

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