For those of us who have anxiety and want to understand it a little better, I found a cool way of looking at your anxiety, and that is to picture it as a cycle.
I’ve seen “the anxiety cycle” depicted a few different ways, but it typically starts with some type of “trigger”, then leads to a thought and/or emotional reaction, and then to some type of behaviour that will perpetuate the cycle and make it worse.
Luckily, if you can be aware of the situations that make you anxious and your reactions and behaviours when you feel anxious, you can figure out how to change and modify these situations, reactions, and behaviours to minimize your anxiety.
Just want to let ya know: The information and tips on this website are from my personal experience with anxiety and are not a substitute for any type of medical, psychological or health advice. My goal is to empower people struggling with anxiety in non-traditional ways that they can do alongside professional help.
There is always help out there, and you can find a mental health professional locally, through your doctor, or through an online directory like this one. This is a link to a great article with affordable therapy options and this is an affiliate link to a great online therapy option. If you are in a crisis, there’s a list of help hotlines here. You are not alone!!
Anxiety Cycle Stage 1 – Initial Situation / Perceived Threat
The first stage of the anxiety cycle is really quite simple. That’s because it just involves a situation. It alllllll starts with that initial situation.
But it’s not just any situation – it’s a situation that your mind turns into a THREAT.
If you recall back to one of the earlier articles in this blog series, you’ll remember that fear is meant to protect you, but that it doesn’t know the difference between real threats and perceived threats. Therefore, our anxiety cycle begins when we come into contact with a particular situation that our fear turns into a threat.
Example 1: Social anxiety trigger
Let’s say you’re out grocery shopping. You’re walking down the vegetable aisle picking up some veggies to make a curry for dinner (gotta get all those nutrients in!), when all of a sudden, you make eye contact with the person in front of you and realize that it’s someone you knew in High School.
Now, for people who don’t have social anxiety, this would just be a regular situation that wouldn’t trigger the anxiety cycle.
However, if you had social anxiety, your fear would distort your mind into thinking that bumping into this person from your past is a serious threat.
And THIS is when your anxiety cycle would begin.
Example 2: Feeling anxious at random
For those of you who just tend to feel anxious at seemingly random times, the “trigger” in this case would just simply be feeling anxious. This can start the anxiety cycle, because it usually leads to some type of anxious thought (which is the next stage of the cycle, and can make your anxious feelings worse).
Example 3: Feeling anxious about work
This is an example where you might feel anxious about one thing in particular, you might feel anxious about a ton of different things, or the stress might just be causing anxiety in general.
All of these examples can lead to anxious thoughts (stage 2) or emotional reactions (stage 3).
Anxiety Cycle Stage 2 – Anxious Thought about Situation
Now it’s time for your thoughts to kick in and make matters even worse!
If you remember back to a previous article in the series, you’ll probably be familiar with negative thought patterns. Well, it’s in this stage of the cycle that they get their time in the spotlight.
Here’s how it works:
After the initial situation takes place and your fear turns the situation into a threat, you’ll then have a negative thought about the situation. But your negative thought isn’t a reaction to the actual situation. Instead, it’s a reaction to the negative thought pattern you have surrounding that situation.
This is a bit confusing, but let me try to simplify:
Your brain reacts to situations in the present based on experiences (or traumas) you’ve had in the past.
A lot of the time, we aren’t actually reacting to real situations, we’re just reacting to how our brain is conditioned to think about these situations.
Essentially, your brain is used to reacting this way. It’s going to have go-to thoughts about this situation, like “I’m going to embarrass myself” or “oh no, *insert fear* is going to happen!” or “Here comes the anxiety again” or “I hope I don’t get fired”.
These thoughts are then usually accompanied by an emotional reaction (stage 3), which is the stage where we can start to make some change to our anxiety cycle.
Related Article: How Negative Thinking Gets Wired into Your Brain
Anxiety Cycle Stage 3 – Emotional Reaction
After you have an anxious thought about the situation, you have two options. You can either:
(1) accept the anxious thought as a true, genuine reflection of the situation
(2) realize that your anxious thought is NOT a reflection of the actual situation
If you go down path (1), then you’ve just bought yourself a one-way ticket to ride the anxiety cycle train over and over and over. Because once you accept the thought as true, you’ll affirm to yourself that what you perceived as a threat is indeed a threat, and then you will continue to feel anxious anytime you encounter that initial situation/trigger.
HOWEVER, If you choose path 2, you can start training yourself to NOT listen to these anxious thoughts. This might take time, but this is where you can practice not responding to these thoughts (and effectively STOP giving them power).
Thought exercise: try to think of your thoughts as just little things just floating through your head. There might be some that are anxious that are coming through, but they’re just floating through and you don’t have to read them. And if you do read them, they don’t need to mean anything to you. (Here’s another article I wrote about telling the difference between anxiety and intuition, that can help you to filter out unhelpful, anxious thoughts)
Anxiety is kind of like a bully; if you react each time they say something to you – you are giving them more power. If you can realize that what they say doesn’t actually affect you, then you take back the power.
Now obviously this is all easier said than done (and it does take practice), but the point is that you can train yourself to not feel as anxious when anxious thoughts pop into your head. It just takes a conscious effort and a will to do it.
You can reduce the power that your anxiety has over you by choosing not to give it so much power in your life.
Anxiety Cycle Stage 4 – Reaffirming Behaviours
Once you have your emotional reaction (let’s say you start feeling upset, ashamed, or even tired, and your physical reaction (elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, etc), you’ll then begin doing things that try to lessen these negative feelings.
This could look like procrastinating, eating too much or not eating enough, avoiding the triggering situation, re-checking your work tons of times, just staying in bed all day, and the list goes on.
But most of the time, these behaviours don’t actually lessen the anxiety at all, they just make it worse.
Avoiding people to reduce your anxiety is only going to make you feel less capable in your social skills. Over-checking your work is going to make you feel less confident in your abilities. Staying in bed all day is going to make you feel worse physically (and therefore mentally). Procrastinating is only going to make you feel more anxious about the work you have to do.
These are called reaffirming behaviours. They are behaviours that give POWER to your fear, that give INTO your fear, and that make you believe you are unable to FACE your fear.
Now make no mistake: stopping these behaviours is not something that is just easy to do. If it was, no one would ever feel anxious. These things can be EXTREMELY hard to do when you have anxiety – but if you take small steps to slowly start reversing these behaviours, you will start to notice that, over time, you will feel less anxious in these types of situations.
I hope that this post helped you to understand your anxiety a little bit more. I find that once you understand your fears a bit better (and the role that you play when responding to fear), you can start making a plan to slowly start changing them and rewiring your brain to not be in fear.
Related Article: 6 Common Destructive Behaviours You Need to Stop Now