Feelings, such as anxiety, do not occur in isolation. They usually occur in relation to how you think, and also to the way you behave. So feelings, thoughts, and behaviors all inter-relate to one another.
Now we are going to talk about the CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) approach. CBT methods seek to link events in the world (triggers), thoughts we create to account for those events, feelings that the thought generates, and behaviors that maintain the thoughts and feelings.
There’s a misconception that situations or events cause anxiety. However, it is not the situation that causes the anxiety. Rather, it is your thoughts about the situation which lead to anxiety.
So the individual acts like a scientist trying to make sense of the facts of the world. This leads to thoughts about the situation, but many of the interpretations are faulty.
In the negative cycle of anxiety, the event triggers the thoughts. And your thoughts about the situation lead to anxious feelings. The anxiety then leads to less than optimal behaviors, and it initiates the negative cycle of anxiety.
Here’s an example of a negative cycle of anxiety:
You see that the trigger can be real or imagined danger. This triggers thoughts in which you may think “I feel bad, so it must be bad;” or “I can’t cope;” or “Something terrible is going to happen.” So when you think such thoughts, then this leads to feelings of anxiety and fearfulness, and this also triggers the physical sensations of anxiety, such as increased breathing, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, dilated pupils, and muscular tension. So you are left with this anxiety which is very uncomfortable and distressing, and this can lead to behaviors which serve to get relief from the anxiety, so you might avoid the situation which makes you anxious, or you might escape or freeze. Other behaviors you might try is to cope by doing things to help you feel better or help keep you safe. However, when you engage in such avoidant behaviors and safety behaviors, then this maintains your thoughts about the situation, and this also maintains your anxiety. So this then forms a never-ending, negative cycle of anxiety- it is a vicious cycle.
Let’s go through each one of these items in the negative cycle of anxiety in detail. So you have anxiety. Your trigger may be that you see, hear, or think about the feared object or situation. And then the event induces thoughts about the event. So you might think “I feel bad, so it must be bad;” or “Something bad is going to happen;” or “I will not be able to cope.” These thoughts then lead to anxiety, so you feel anxious and fearful. You also have the physical effects of the adrenaline response, which is also known as the fight or flight response. The anxiety then makes you avoid, so you start avoiding the feared object or situation. Or you might flee and escape the feared object or situation. You may also do things to help you feel better and distract you from your anxiety- you might resort to self-talk, plan an escape, use medication, drink, smoke, fiddle with personal effects, or avoid eye contact. These avoidant behaviors are also called safety behaviors. Although the behaviors decrease your anxiety over the short term, the behaviors actually maintain your overall anxiety from the feared stimulus. Subsequently, the avoidance maintains the belief in the danger and direness of events.
This interaction between your thoughts, anxiety, and avoidant behaviors maintains the vicious, negative cycle of anxiety. The feared stimulus induces thoughts, which induces anxiety, which compels you to avoid. So instead of just exposing yourself to the trigger and finding out nothing bad will occur, you avoid the trigger and this maintains your belief in the danger. But with avoidance, you never get to find out that the anxiety will go away naturally on its own if you just stay with your trigger.
The solution to break the negative cycle of anxiety is CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). CBT helps to break the negative cycle of anxiety by changing how you think and what you do. It is difficult to change the way you feel, so the focus is on changing the way you think and the way you do things. For further help on breaking the negative cycle of anxiety, please read my self-help book on anxiety, Anxiety Protocol.