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.
Let’s explore how anxiety works and how to cope with it.
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 become incredibly debilitating, interfering 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 towards what’s essential for our 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.
This “fight, flight, or freeze” mechanism worked incredibly well back in the time where we were more likely to be attacked by a bear, and our very survival depended on quick thinking and a speedy response. However, when our “fight or flight” is triggered at the grocery store because we’re confronted with germs, a crowd, or running into our ex, this becomes significantly less helpful to us and the task we are trying to accomplish in our day-to-day lives.
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:
- 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)
- You learn that by avoiding the triggers of your anxiety (heights, public speaking, other people)
- You feel relief and back in control of your life, momentarily.
- However, your fear only grows and increases its rule over your life.
- The next time you have the opportunity to face your fears, you chose to avoid them instead and the cycle repeats 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. You may even begin to fear more about the potential for discomfort than the event itself.
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.
Why Avoidance is so Harmful
It can be frustrating when the very thing you are trying to do to help your anxiety is actually what is fueling it. A lot is happening internally when you avoid the fears that feed your anxiety. Namely, this practice of avoidance decreases your confidence to handle similar situations. You will be even more unlikely to try to prove to yourself you can handle the challenges that arise in the future.
Avoidance can be thought of in the traditional sense: only staying in your home and avoiding all public places, but it can also show up in “relieving” behaviors. This can be actions like always needing someone else around to avoid being alone with yourself, like only going out with a friend to avoid being alone in public, or even using substances to make a stressful situation bearable.
To heal and process anxiety, fear must be felt and owned. As previously mentioned, it is not about easing the discomfort associated with anxiety that brings healing. Rather it is the bravery to face our fears despite our discomfort that heals us. It is our bravery, courage and confidence that allows us to cultivate an attitude of hope rather than fear.
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 “helps 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—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.
- Grounding: 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.
- Mindfulness: 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.
- Gradual Exposure: 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.
- Support: 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.
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.
Reach out to us today to get connected with the support you need to overcome your anxiety once and for all. Call us at 844 875 5609.