– Hm, something bad can happen (thought no. 1 in your head)
– I feel anxious and I think that I am not capable of handling the situation (thought no. 2 also in your head)
– So I will avoid everything that can trigger my anxiety. (thought no. 3, not a lucky one)
Are you familiar with this scenario? If so, bear with me until the end, cause it will worth.
The essence of anxiety is worrying about some potential threat. It means trying to cope with a future event that you think will have a negative impact. You do this by paying more attention to possible signs of potential threat, and looking internally to see whether you will be able to handle the dangerous. When you start to feel anxious, you think that you can’t cope with the situation, and therefore become more anxious. This is the start of the vicious cycle of anxiety. Anxiety, more anxiety…
The anxiety only becomes bigger when you avoid it
If you feel anxious, or anticipate the anxiety, you will do things to decrease your anxiety. People sometimes try and reduce the anxiety by avoiding the feared situation altogether. This avoidance instantly reduces the anxiety because you have not put yourself in a distressing situation. But, even though avoidance makes anxiety better in the short term it also make it worse in the long term. For example, you avoid going to the gym because this place triggers your fear. Therefore you successfully avoid the distress you associate with gym. In the short term, you do not feel anxious. However in the long term you become even more reluctant to face anxiety. You continue to believe that emotion is dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. You continue scanning your environment for signals of danger and signals of safety. In this way your anxiety may increase and generalise to other situations.
Safety behaviours contribute to anxiety
In addition to avoidance many people use “safety behaviours” or subtle avoidance to help handling the anxious situation. These can include relying on medication or on your mobile device, always having an exit plan for potentially-anxious situations, or making sure you have someone else with you.
These safety behaviours also contribute to the vicious cycle of anxiety. When you become dependent on them you do not learn that emotion per se is not dangerous. You try to suppress emotion, which has the contradictory effect of heightening the emotion, increasing the distress. Also can you imagine how stressing it would be if one day your safety behaviours were not available to you? It will be stressing, but you will also have the opportunity to overcome your fear. And this will feel soooo good. 😊
You can reverse the vicious cycle of anxiety
Vicious cycles play an important role in maintaining anxiety. However, you have the power to turn this cycle around in order to create a positive cycle that will help you overcome anxiety. One important step is gradually facing feared situations. This will lead to an improved sense of confidence, which will help decrease your anxiety and allow you to go into situations that are important to you. Some people might encourage you to tackle your biggest fear first, but many people prefer to take it step by step. And this is called a graded exposure. You start with situations that are easier for you to cope with, then work your way up to more challenging tasks. This allows you to build your confidence slowly, to use other skills you have learned, to get used to the situations, and to challenge your fears about each situational exposure exercise. By doing this in a structured and repeated way, you have a great chance of decreasing your anxiety about those situations.
P.S: With courage you can break the cycle of anxiety. Dare to do it! 🙂