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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ashley Jacobson

Understanding The Cycle of Anxiety & How to Break it


anxiety

Anxiety is a common experience for children, teens, and adults. Everyone worries and there can be times where worrying can be helpful and lead to effective problem-solving strategies. A helpful worry occurs when worrying leads an individual to think through a specific problem and after they are able to come up with a solution or the problem is resolved, then the worry fades away. Anxiety on the other hand is rooted in fears and often includes worrying about the unknown, the past, and the future. Individuals with anxiety often have difficulty controlling their worry and although they may try to find potential solutions to problems, anxiety continues to persist. When anxiety persists, this can lead to the cycle of anxiety. Anxiety can be extremely stressful and debilitating for those that have it and the cycle of anxiety can often be vicious and challenging to navigate. By understanding the cycle of anxiety, this will help individuals to identify if they fall into the cycle and the steps to take to break that cycle.


anxiety

Anxiety

First in the cycle, an anxiety producing situation leads to uncomfortable symptoms such as worry, fear, a racing heart, sweating, or a feeling of being overwhelmed. Typically, anxiety has been triggered by a stressful situation, event, thought, etc. When anxiety becomes triggered, many people will go into fight or flight mode. Most individuals will want to get away from the thing that is making them feel anxious, which leads to the next part of the cycle- Avoidance.


Avoidance

During the avoidance stage, the uncomfortable symptoms are controlled by avoiding the anxiety producing situation. Avoidance can show up in many ways, such as physically (removing oneself from the stressful situation by leaving), mental avoidance (thinking of something else, playing loud music, sleeping), or engaging in a safety behavior (going on your phone, asking for reassurance, redoing a task, etc). Safety behaviors are quite common and many people utilize them to cope with anxiety.


Short Term Relief

After avoiding the anxiety provoking situation, an individual will initially have short-term relief from their anxiety. However, this relief is temporary, and anxiety will become heightened when faced with another anxiety-provoking situation.


Long Term Anxiety Growth

During this stage, the initial fear that led to avoidance worsens and the brain learns that when an anxiety producing situation is avoided, the symptoms go away. As a result, the symptoms of anxiety will be worse the next time and avoidance is more likely.


Here is an example of how one might be stuck in the anxiety cycle: There is a presentation at school that is making you feel anxious (worried, heart racing, etc.). This produces uncomfortable feelings that you want to go away. To make these feelings go away, you decide to “avoid” school. Initially, you feel a sense of relief because you do not have to give your presentation and you avoided the anxiety provoking situation. However, when you have to go back to school the next day, your anxiety levels will be more elevated than when you initially avoided school and will make it more likely that you will continue to avoid school.


Long Term Effects of the Cycle of Anxiety

  • Chronic physical health problems- prolonged anxiety can contribute to long-term health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a weakened immune system. Chronic stress and anxiety can also exacerbate existing health conditions.

  • Mental Health Disorders- Sustained anxiety can increase the risk of developing other mental health disorders, such as depression or other anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or phobias.

  • Sleep Disturbances

  • Social and relationship problems

  • Quality of Life- Over time, chronic anxiety can diminish your overall quality of life. It can limit your ability to work, enjoy leisure activities, and maintain a healthy social life.


How to Break the Cycle of Anxiety

Although the anxiety cycle can be difficult to navigate, it can be broken by tackling your anxiety head on, and working with a therapist can help you through the process. Typically, therapists will incorporate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure Therapy, and relaxation strategies to target anxiety. CBT is utilized to help individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and beliefs and teaches coping skills to manage anxiety.


Exposure therapy consists of graded exposures, in which an individual works with a therapist to gradually confront feared situations. This usually starts with individuals creating an anxiety hierarchy and listing 10 anxiety provoking situations and start by tackling the least anxiety provoking situation and working their way up the hierarchy. By tackling each fear, the individual will gain confidence and reassurance that they have the skills to challenge their fears. Relaxation techniques are used to help individuals cope with their anxious feelings. Some techniques may include square breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation.



When To Seek Additional Support

If you are experiencing anxiety and are finding yourself stuck in the anxiety cycle, you may benefit from individual therapy. Therapy can be helpful in reducing your anxiety symptoms while also giving you the tools you need to conquer your anxiety on a daily basis.


At Balanced Minds Psychology & Wellness we specialize in assisting individuals navigating life’s challenges. To learn more about me and the services I provide, checkout my profile. If you are ready to start the therapy process, contact us today to start a free consultation.



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