What Is the Cycle of Anxiety and What Can You Do to Break It?

Medically reviewed by: Shane Trujillo, EdM
Tuesday, June 6 2023

Are you constantly feeling stressed, worried, or overwhelmed? If so, it could be more than just occasional anxiety. For those who experience cycles of anxiety, life can feel unbearable.

It's an exhausting cycle of fear and avoidance behaviors that leads to further worry. With the right strategies and therapy for anxiety, you can break this negative cycle and start finding peace again. Read on to understand the cycle of anxiety, how you can recognize it, and tips on how to break the cycle. 

What is anxiety?

Experiencing occasional stress and anxiety is a normal part of life. “If you don't have stress or anxiety, it’s actually a bigger concern,” says SonderMind Chief Medical Officer Doug Newton, MD, MPH. “You probably aren’t living a life where you’re going to develop appropriately and may have some challenges.” 

However, if you feel it is beginning to impact your daily life, you might be wondering when to get help for anxiety. Anxiety has become a problem when it impairs your daily function or affects your physical health. “Anxiety becomes a disorder when it impairs functioning, especially over a period of time,” says Dr. Newton.

When you have anxiety, you worry about a potential threat — something in the future that you think will be negative. You might start to have symptoms, which can include:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, or on edge
  • Feeling impending danger or doom
  • Increased heart rate, breathing, sweating, trembling
  • Feeling weak and tired
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Excessive worrying
  • Gastrointestinal issues

According to Dr. Newton, when anxiety becomes problematic, you may experience one (or all) of the three A’s: 

  • Avoidance: You may begin to avoid things that stress you out.
  • Ambivalence: You may ruminate on things and not be able to get past them, which can impact how you think through things and problem solve. 
  • Actions: You may act or behave differently.

What are the stages in the cycle of anxiety?

As you experience the three A’s, it can lead you to a cycle of anxiety, which includes four stages. Here’s what they look like:

  1. First, you feel anxious about the situation and have anxiety symptoms.
  2. Then, you try to avoid the situation that’s causing you anxiety.
  3. Because of the avoidance, you feel a temporary sense of relief.
  4. However, the situation remains or comes back and you return to feeling anxious.

Let’s dig deeper into what this means. 

1. Feeling anxious and having anxiety symptoms

Because of a certain situation or experience, you might start having symptoms of anxiety, like endless worry. When you notice these symptoms, you might think that you can’t cope with the situation. This might lead you to become more anxious.

2. Avoiding the situation 

When you feel anxious, you might want to do things that will make you feel less of that emotion. For some people, avoiding the dreaded situation is a way to reduce anxiety symptoms. When you don’t put yourself in a stressful situation, you won’t feel the symptoms. 

3. Getting relief from anxiety in the short term

When you avoid a feared situation, you get temporary relief from anxiety symptoms. You might breathe a sigh of relief.

4. Returning to a new state of anxiety in the long term

However, when you avoid a difficult situation, it can make you unable to face future situations where you might feel anxiety. You might continue to avoid similar situations in the future. You might also apply this potentially unhealthy coping strategy of avoidance to other situations. 

To help illustrate this, we’ll use a fictional situation: Let’s say your friend wants to introduce you to a new group of people and invites you to a social gathering. 

How you might feel: The thought of socializing with new people makes your heart race. You can’t stop thinking about the gathering and you have trouble sleeping. 

What you might do: To avoid the gathering, you say that an emergency has come up and you can’t meet. 

How that makes you feel: You feel relief that you don’t have to attend the gathering and meet new people.

What might happen in the future: Your friend reaches out again two weeks later to invite you to a movie night with new friends. The cycle of anxiety starts, and you feel the same symptoms of anxiety as you did before. To avoid movie night, you say that you are sick and can’t join. 

Reversing the cycle of anxiety

Fortunately, it is possible to break the cycle of anxiety. Think of it in four steps:

  1. You slowly face your feared situation.
  2. You allow yourself to experience the anxiety symptoms.
  3. You use healthy coping skills to reduce your anxiety levels.
  4. You apply those skills to control your reactions and responses.

You might start with situations that give you low anxiety, then slowly work up to situations that give you greater anxiety. This helps you challenge your fears, build your confidence, and use the coping skills you’ve learned.

How therapy can help with breaking the cycle of anxiety  

If you’re feeling like you’re going through the cycle of anxiety and it is affecting your ability to function and do what you want and need to do, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. A therapist who specializes in anxiety can help you break through the cycle of symptoms and avoidance by helping you see things from a different perspective and learn healthy coping strategies. Your therapist will get to know you, and work with you to create a treatment plan tailored to your needs

Seeking professional help for anxiety or any mental health concern is a brave decision and an important first step toward feeling like yourself again. If you feel you could benefit from therapy, SonderMind can help you connect with a therapist who’s right for you.

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