A Look Inside the Vicious Cycle of Anxiety

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

Whether you experience a phobia, generalized anxiety, panic, OCD or some other form of anxiety disorder, your symptoms will be bound together by common threads. As an anxiety sufferer you may perceive these threads as more like links in a heavy chain that feel impossible to break. It’s what is normally referred to as a vicious cycle. In this post I want to briefly recap on the principles of the vicious cycle before unpacking the importance of each of its links.

Stripped back to basics we can identify four key anxiety symptoms. They involve the way we think, feel, behave, and the way our body reacts. Thoughts are a critical part of anxiety. Anxious people rapidly weigh up situations in order to assess any potential threats. If a threat is sensed anxiety follows, physical symptoms and self-protective behaviors, most commonly avoidance, kick in.

Although there is some level of uniformity in the way anxiety reveals itself, the circumstances that trigger anxiety for people may be quite different. Because of this a typical cognitive therapist will work with their patient in order to help them identify the cycles and connections (the links) that are specific to them.

Anna has stopped socializing. She won’t go anywhere that involves the prospect of eating in a public place, but as eating is such a feature of social and work gatherings it is causing tension in her personal relationship. Anna feels this behavior has to stop so she bites the bullet and seeks help. After a few minutes of conversation with her therapist it becomes clear that a fear of choking on food weighs heavily on her mind. Just the thought of choking terrifies her. Even talking about it increases her heart rate and makes her feel nauseous.

Another person with anxiety issues may look at Anna’s case and sympathize yet be puzzled by it. That’s because the cycles and connections in their own anxiety may be entirely different and I don’t just mean the diagnosis. There is often considerable overlap in symptoms with anxiety disorders. It is very common for situations to be perceived as more threatening or dangerous than they actually are, for example. Hypervigilance, avoidance and ‘home-grown’ strategies for coping are others.

The reassuring thing about vicious cycles is the fact that making a change in any one area will affect all the others. Change the way you think and your feelings and behavior will respond accordingly. Change the way you behave and the process will be just as effective. It may not be a comfortable process and it may need the guidance, help and support of a therapist to get inside the vicious cycle, but it can certainly be done.

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