The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety
By Danielle Carney, LMHC
In honor of it being spooky season, I figured a horror-themed therapy blog post would be fitting.
Tell me if you relate to this – sitting at home, watching Netflix or scrolling on TikTok, knowing you have an anxiety-provoking task or project to complete and assuring yourself as you feel dread creeping up, “Oh, I’ll get around to it later.”
Later comes, later goes, now it’s bedtime and you tell yourself, “I’ll do it tomorrow…”
The tension builds. Now that thing you had to do feels terrifying. It’s become so big and scary when you think about it, that even though you know you should do it, the thought of getting started paralyzes you. You keep pushing it off, but it’s haunting you.
Then what happens? Sometimes the thing might get done, more out of urgency and it being pressing rather than actually wanting to. Usually there’s also more stress, anxiety, and general unpleasantness associated with it depending on how much you avoided it.
If this sounds eerily familiar, you’re in luck! Many of my clients also struggle with procrastination and other aspects of avoidance, and as a therapist who specializes in anxiety, I can help. This monster also has a name – you might be caught in the anxiety-avoidance cycle, and this is just one of the ways it can show up.
The Anxiety-Avoidance Cycle
To summarize what anxiety is, it is basically defined by worrying about and trying to manage a potential threat. It is attempting to cope with a future event that you think might be negative.
Anxiety can show up in our lives in so many ways. One really annoying way is that when we feel anxious, we usually want to avoid the thing that’s causing us anxiety. While this might make sense instinctively in the short-term, the end result is when we actually have to face the stressor, it becomes so much bigger and scarier. It might seem counterintuitive, but we end up creating a lot more anxiety through avoiding, than if we had just done the thing initially.
Avoiding things can seem to be a reasonable response if we don’t want to feel anxious. When we start to feel the physical symptoms of anxiety, our bodies might cue to us, “Uh oh, something is wrong here, better stay away.” And so we do. The problem that comes in later is that by continually avoiding stressors, we start to lose confidence in our ability to face those situations as time goes on and the anxiety about those stressors increases.
What If I Don’t Totally Avoid Things?
Good question! I’m a big believer in baby steps, so if you can identify and start to take some steps to slightly decrease the level of avoidance you’ve been caught in, that could be a great start.
Some of these steps might look like taking medication to help decrease anxiety in high-stress moments, asking a friend to support you in doing something new, allowing yourself to scroll social media when anxiety comes up, or having an exit plan for potentially anxiety-provoking situations. These ideas can be helpful initially and create some safety as you’re working to expand the level of distress that you’re able to tolerate!
However, anxiety can be a sneaky b*tch, and if you’re not mindful, these same safety behaviors can unfortunately also become another manifestation of avoidance. It’s important to continue pushing yourself just outside of your comfort zone to reduce the hold anxiety and avoidance can have on you.
When you start depending on safety behaviors, you don’t get the opportunity to learn that emotion (i.e. anxiety) in and of itself is not dangerous. You don’t get a chance to learn that distressing emotions tend to peak and then usually subside relatively quickly if you can ride it out. You try to suppress and avoid emotion, which actually has the opposite effect of heightening the emotion, increasing the distress. Also, if you one day could not engage in your safety behaviors, what would you do? Go back to avoiding altogether? No way! Ask yourself, what do you learn in the safety of your living room? Also consider how this keeps you from living the life you really want.
How Do I Break The Vicious Cycle?
The good news is it’s totally possible to break the vicious cycle of anxiety with willingness, consistency, and a commitment to change. Here are some steps to consider:
1. Recognize that it's so normal if your body and mind respond to feared or unfamiliar situations.
When we can take a step back, we can intuitively see that of course new things are going to be weird and potentially fear-provoking, right? So we work with that. First, name your anxiety. Let it be there. Tell yourself anxiety can be a helpful cue that you’re uncomfortable and maybe there’s some work to do here.
2. Start with baby steps! Figure out what actions you need to take to face the anxiety.
So many things could apply here, so I’ll give an example of how this could work. For a socially anxious person who struggles to go places on their own, we might work up to having them go to the store or run errands on their own. Maybe we’d start with some distress tolerance and emotional regulation skills to build awareness of what’s coming up and regulate anxiety in the moment. We could also consider asking a friend to go with them for a short amount of time as they get used to being out. Your journey to reducing the anxiety-avoidance cycle will be individual and personal, and it could be useful to work with a therapist to map out what it might look like for you.
3. Shift your self-talk.
You are capable of doing so much more than you think. I mean that literally. The things that can feel really difficult and impossible are often just out of reach. The way we talk to ourselves and the thoughts we allow ourselves to buy into matter. We have a choice in what we allow to grab a hold of us. Believe in yourself, use positive language when you speak to yourself, and learn to coach yourself through hard moments. This can be as simple as telling yourself something like, “You are safe, you can do this. This is hard, and you can still get through it.”
4. Build and strengthen your coping skills.
Like I mentioned already, finding ways to cope with anxiety in the moment is so, so helpful. We cannot expect the anxiety to go away – we can only learn to work with it, and not let it impact our decisions to do or not do something. Deep breathing, grounding techniques, and distraction (in moderation) can really help to move through anxiety when it feels overwhelming.
5. Keep pushing yourself.
The goal is to allow anxiety to have the least impact on your actions as possible. It can be there, and you can cope with it. From the first couple baby steps you decide on, identify a few more to keep pushing past the limits of what feels comfortable. Growth happens at the edge of your comfort zone, so keep challenging yourself. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.
6. It’s the journey, not the destination.
Don’t forget to give yourself credit where you’re making strides in reducing avoidance and coping with your anxiety differently. We need to reinforce the changes you’re making for them to feel fulfilling and to maintain them. There’s bound to be parts of the process when you might revert to old behaviors, but we can welcome that, too. Try to learn from any regressions and apply it to the next time you’re in that situation. Progress, not perfection.