You may find that you want to close yourself off from seeing friends or meeting new people due to anxiety. That you feel the need to say “no” to invitations or have an escape plan in order to make it through the day lately. The more you try to alleviate the feelings of worry or anxiety, the stronger those feelings grow as time goes on. This story can be changed and replaced with a different narrative. Learning about the cycle of anxiety is a crucial step in taking back control of our lives.
What is Anxiety?
Despite its negative reputation, anxiety can actually be a helpful feeling that encourages us to act to protect ourselves, avoid danger, and problem solve. In its healthy state, anxiety allows us to be self-reflective, socially conscious, and motivated for improvement.
In its negative state, familiar symptoms of anxiety can also show up in our lives as worry, nervousness, panic, or fear that something terrible will happen. When it is difficult to control the worry and those feelings of anxiety become persistent, then it becomes problematic and may require mental health treatment. This anxiety can ultimately interfere with work, school, relationships, and emotional wellness.
When we feel threatened, our bodies go into a “fight, flight, or freeze” mode to help us manage that threat. In this state, the body re-routes all available resources toward what’s essential for survival.
In this state, you’ll experience an increased heart rate, may find it difficult to breathe, feel irritable, and be confronted with an overwhelming urge to flee, shut down, or a whole host of other symptoms. The aftermath of this can then bring up feelings of tension and leave us exhausted for the rest of the day.
Anxiety’s Vicious Cycle
The root of anxiety is the fear of a potential threat and your confidence in yourself about whether or not you can handle that threat when it arises. This cycle repeats itself through a predictable pattern where you:
- Are triggered and begin to feel anxious (this can mean anything from racing thoughts, self-doubt, and negativity to a full-blown panic attack)
- Learn that by avoiding the triggers of your anxiety (heights, public speaking, other people)
- Feel relief and back in control of your life, momentarily.
- Sense that your fear only grows and increases its rule over your life.
- Feel as if the next time you have the opportunity to face your fears, you will choose to avoid them instead and allow the cycle to repeat itself.
This final step often leads to a hyper-awareness of your body and your surroundings, and easily lends itself to a mindset that is constantly scanning, hypervigilant and alert. Of course, this fixation on seeking out signs of a threat operates like a true self-fulfilling prophecy, typically increasing anxiety feelings.
It is the natural response in this cycle to attempt to escape the situation or to avoid the trigger so you can stop feeling anxious or even avoid it in the first place. However, this solution is solving the wrong problem. While it may ease your discomfort and provide short term relief, in the long term only increases the influence of anxiety in your life.
The Role of Addiction
In line with this avoidance mindset, many people will self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to manage their anxiety and avoid feeling anxious altogether. Again, this is a temporary relief for a symptom that has long term consequences and further evidence for the need to address mental health symptoms in the process of addiction treatment.
Using substances changes how the brain functions and can make it more and more challenging to regulate anxiety. When a person has one drink and they learn that it seems to “help” their anxiety, they then may begin to turn to alcohol as a way to manage how they feel. If this continues, it won’t be one drink that they need to manage their emotions, but several.
This cycle of learning to rely on external substances to regulate your internal state can even occur with medication prescribed by a doctor. This is another reason why it’s essential to fully understand the cycle of anxiety before becoming hooked on a benzodiazepine and seek mental health treatment before these dangerous, addictive patterns develop.
Even in recovery, after withdrawing from drugs or alcohol, the brain still needs to readjust from becoming dependent on substances. This lends itself to post-acute withdrawal symptoms, such as increased anxiety, panic, irritability, and many others. If you are still in your first year of recovery, it’s likely that you may be dealing with these additional symptoms and need more support and healthy coping skills to address these symptoms as your brain recovers.
Ways to Cope with Anxiety in Recovery
There are ways you can help address your anxiety without avoidance and turning to problematic coping skills. Here are some things to try to decrease anxiety in the long term.
Connect to your five senses to ground yourself into what is going on in the present moment, both in and around you. It can also help to participate in activities or coping skills that engage the senses such as exercise, aromatherapy, baking, or crafting. This will aid you in focusing on your external surroundings instead of your anxious inner thoughts.
Determine “what is” instead of “what if” when stuck in an anxious thought loop. This can help you better respond to the situation in front of you instead of pondering all of the future possibilities. Mindfulness and meditation are also helpful practices that can bring you into the present moment to better attend to what is in your current control.
Stopping the cycle of avoidance and confronting what brings anxiety will bring short-term discomfort and a path to long term relief. This can be done with small steps of exposure to challenge these fears to take back what anxiety has claimed. While this may look different during the pandemic, there are many creative ways to reverse the cycle safely.
Calling a trusted friend or family member can also help you talk through the anxiety. Especially given the current global stressors, you may find that connecting with others about pandemic-related anxiety has the power to ease tensions and bring relief. Remember, even though we are socially distanced we need to be socially connected now more than ever.
Solutions For Anxiety
It can be overwhelming to think about the roots of anxiety in your life, and even to realize that you are the one that has allowed anxiety to take control. However, this can also be incredibly empowering.
You can learn how to manage anxiety and stop the cycle from continuing in its endless loop. Promises Behavioral Health offers many mental health treatment programs in Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to help if you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, or with your attempts to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances.