The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety and How to Break It
Everyone feels stress and anxiety from time to time. It helps us overcome daily struggles and pushes us to improve ourselves. However, there are times when the brain misjudges the need for anxiety, and it can cause problems instead. In these cases, anxiety can become disruptive and become a disorder.
Anxiety is Common
If you are experiencing anxiety, know that it's common, and you're not alone.
According to the National Institute of Health, anxiety disorders are the most common forms of mental illness in the US. About 1 in 5 adults are affected each year. For children and adolescents, about 1 in 3 will experience anxiety before the age of 18.
If hearing these numbers about anxiety makes you feel anxious, you are not alone. Part of being anxious includes being hypervigilant about other reasons to worry. It's a coping strategy the brain uses to keep you safe from the world around you. But this strategy sometimes backfires on itself and creates an endless loop about being anxious.
Ironically, avoiding the emotion of anxiety creates more anxiety. This "anxiety about anxiety" is so common it has a name—secondary anxiety. Secondary anxiety stems from a false belief that you won't be able to handle the perceived threat. This false belief is what keeps you on the hamster wheel of secondary anxiety.
The Anxiety Wheel
Being anxious about being anxious feels like being stuck on a hamster wheel.
It is exhausting.
It is all-consuming.
And it gets you nowhere.
No one sets out trying to deliberately start themselves on an anxiety loop. It happens because humans are wired to be anxious. Secondary anxiety is the brain's natural reaction to a perceived threat. The brain views the original anxiety as an enemy and unleashes the body's defenses.
The brain then begins its biological stress response as a way to deal with the threat. During times of physical danger, the brain's response would be a correct reaction. But in the safety of our homes, the brain's response is mistaken. Unfortunately, the brain can't always gauge situations correctly.
Managing Secondary Anxiety
So your brain is stuck on a false belief and feels anxiety. What can you do?
The best approach is to accept how your brain feels and work with the body instead. Dialing down the physical response is vital to managing the anxiety coming from your brain. By controlling what you can — your physical response — you can diminish the feelings of anxiety in the mind and start the path to healing.
Breathing: Connecting the Body to the Brain
The stress hormones released by the brain during anxiety will direct a person to breathe quicker and exhale for a shorter duration. These two breathing changes end up with the same result—lower carbon dioxide levels which narrow the blood vessels to the brain. The muscles around the lungs become stiff because of the inadequate breathing, creating a feeling of tightness around the rib cage and throat.
A person who feels anxiety may describe the feeling of "not being able to breathe." This feeling acts like an accelerant to secondary anxiety. Feeling unable to breathe is what causes secondary anxiety to rev up to a panic attack.
Breathing impacts how your body reacts to internal and external influences. This is why most meditation exercises focus on directing your breathing. By controlling breathing, you can take control back from the brain's primitive responses.
Learning How to Breathe Again
When the body balances its oxygen and carbon dioxide levels by breathing adequately, it dials down the stress response.
The heart rate slows.
The muscles relax.
The mind clears.
Training the body to breathe the way it needs to takes a lot of time and energy. When anxiety has already sapped your energy and time is of the essence, then a little assistance may be necessary. CalmiGo, for example, is a great resource to effortlessly help you regulate your breath in a moment of distress.
Secondary anxiety is common. You are not alone, and the emotions are not your fault. You can seek professional help if anxiety starts to impact your personal and professional life. Remember to lean on family and friends for support and be kind to yourself.
The positive side of anxiety is that managing it is possible. With a bit of time, practice, and diligence, things can improve.