How Thought Cycles Maintain Anxiety

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional
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Anxiety is a cruel companion.

It doesn’t matter that anyone else has or hasn’t noticed it develop. It has no regard as to how the situation developed or the fact that eventually its symptoms die down. Sadly, if you suffer with anxiety you always feel vulnerable and different. You remain vigilant and ready for the next moment it will dominate your life.

Understanding how thought cycles work to maintain anxiety can be a useful self-help step. Here are just a few examples:

Self-consciousness and worry

Mary has always been shy. Over the past few months she has started to get on well with a work colleague. She is constantly worried that she isn’t good enough for him. She worries he will see through her and find someone else more interesting and attractive.

Mary is guarded because she’s trying to keep herself safe and reduce the risk of disappointment. In her mind, thought cycles have developed which probably look a little like these:

Worry about being dull > over-cautious about speaking > worry about being dull

This thought cycle means Mary is attending more to her shyness and anxieties than what is actually going on around her. If she was really so boring, why is he still so interested in her after all these months?

Sees herself as too shy > feels self-conscious and awkward > because she’s too shy

This is a thought cycle that demonstrates Mary is very self-aware. Self-awareness is the mechanism that drives social anxiety. Mary is so worried about things going wrong on the inside that she forgets to process information on the outside that would invalidate her concerns.

Staying safe

Tom gets really anxious in the company of women. He mumbles, he blushes, he looks down at the floor. He thinks he’s unattractive, geeky, and is bound to say or do something that will leave him feeling embarrassed and humiliated.

His thought cycle may be:

Fear of blushing > look down > feel self-conscious > fear of blushing

If people want to get to know Tom or simply want information from him, they may have to work past his safety behaviors by asking more questions or getting him to repeat things. They may become irritated by his apparent inability to communicate. Tom’s strategy is counter-productive in that he’s attracting even more attention than he might otherwise receive.

Avoid speaking > safer this way > less anxiety > avoid speaking

Poor Tom is smoothing a path toward social isolation. In Tom’s mind, the safe thing to do is to avoid situations that make him feel uneasy. But the more he does this, the greater the likelihood that he will become lonely and even embittered. The sad thing is that staying safe prevents Tom from learning there is no need to simply stay safe.

Breaking into thought cycles

It isn’t easy to do. Left long enough, these cycles seem to represent the truth. But they only seem that way. Confidence comes with trying out new things and taking small risks. Sometimes it’s easier to test out new approaches with comparative strangers in order to learn that dangers exist mainly in the mind.

Try passing the time of day with a shop assistant, the librarian or maybe a neighbor you see most days but never speak to. You’ll be surprised how easily and quickly your confidence builds.** See More Helpful Articles**

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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.