How do we get in the anxiety trap/become tricked by anxiety?
Four phases of experience can lead to us getting caught in the anxiety trap.
We experience overwhelming stress.
The overwhelming stress we experience causes us to behave (think and act) apprehensively, triggering our body’s freeze, fight, flee stress response to such an extent that the symptoms and sensations we experience are so bewildering and terrifying for us that we come to fear them.
The fear we feel consequently perpetuates and heightens the activation of our body’s stress response and its accompanying symptoms and sensations and thus we get trapped in the fear and stress response cycle that goes like this: stress response – fear, stress response, fear, stress response – fear, stress response - fear, stress response - fear, stress response and so on.
Rather than understanding right at the beginning that the anxiety symptoms and sensations we are experiencing are simply the symptoms and sensations of our body’s stress response and that they will eventually go when the stressor(s) that triggered them passes, or when we deploy better strategies for managing stress more effectively, allowing time for our body to recover and re-balance, we get caught in the anxiety trap/become tricked by anxiety.
"Many people are tricked... A sudden or prolonged state of stress may sensitise adrenaline-releasing nerves to produce the symptoms of stress in an exaggerated, alarming way. This state of sensitisation is well-known to doctors, but so little known to people generally that, when first experienced, it may bewilder and dupe it's victims in to becoming afraid of it. If asked to pinpoint the beginning [of problematic anxiety]… I would say that it is the moment when the sensitised person becomes afraid of the sensations produced by severe stress and so places himself in a cycle of fear-adrenaline-fear. In response to this fear, more adrenaline is released and his already sensitised body is thus stimulated to produce more and more intense sensations, which inspire more fear. This is the fear-adrenaline-fear cycle.” (Dr Claire Weekes, ‘Self-Help for Your Nerves’ (1997), page 8)
"Sufferers from these symptoms... are quite sure that there is something seriously wrong with them and cannot believe that anyone else could have such a distressing experience. Many feel convinced that they have a brain tumour (at least something 'deep seated') or that they are on the verge of madness. Their one wish is to be, as quickly as possible, the person they used to be before this 'horrible thing' happened to them. They are often not aware that their symptoms are nervous in origin and follow a well-recognised pattern shared by numerous others like themselves, the pattern of continuous fear and tension". (Dr Claire Weekes, ‘Self-help for Your Nerves’ (1997), page 11)
It is incredibly easy to get tricked/caught in the anxiety trap given that most people are not sufficiently informed about the physiology of anxiety. Even when we are informed, the actual experience of acute anxiety – its symptoms and sensations - can take us by surprise and be so bewildering, frightening and terrifying that, at the time, the only context we feel the experience warrants is a catastrophic one.
Examples of catastrophic thinking we might attach to the bewildering, frightening and terrifying symptoms and sensations of anxiety include:
The more we engage in catastrophic thinking, the more apprehensive and fearful we become, further heightening our body’s freeze, fight, or flee response and its symptoms and sensations setting up a vicious cycle of: stress response – fear, stress response, fear, stress response – fear, stress response - fear, stress response - fear, stress response, and so on.
Furthermore, if we experience acute anxiety and catastrophic thinking when engaging with a specific type of situation, event, person, place or thing, we might come to associate that situation, event, person, place or thing with the sense of fear we felt. This is called fear association. For example, if we experience the symptoms and sensations of a panic attack in a in a public place we then might associate public places with a panic attack (this is how agoraphobic develops), or if we experience the symptoms and sensations of panic attack in a car we might then associate being in a car with a panic attack.
To get some level of temporary relief from the unpleasant experience of our nervous system hyperarousal, the catastrophic thinking we engaged in as a result, and the situations, event, person, place or thing we came to associate all this with, we engage in safety and avoidance behaviours. For example, we might make sure we are with someone else in a public place (safety behaviour) or avoid public places completely (avoidance behaviour). Or we might make sure we were always driving and on our own in a car (safety behaviour), or we might avoid being in a car completely (avoidance behaviour).
Our continued safety and avoidance behaviours reinforce our fear of the symptoms and sensations of our body’s freeze, fight, or flee response/nervous system hyperarousal, and the situations, events, persons, places or things with which we associate them with. This is because our safety and avoidance behaviours prevent our nervous system from habituating or, in other words, becoming accustomed to those symptoms and sensations, and the situations, events, persons, places or things we associate them with, and therefore relaxing with them. Consequently, those symptoms and sensations, situations, events, persons, places or things remain novel and fearful to us, and therefore arousing and anxiety provoking. Furthermore, avoidance tends to generalise over time and this may have also been our experience – for example, we might have started to avoid using the escalator at work and then, over time, we began to avoiding all escalators, and then perhaps all buildings with escalators.
Moreover, when we avoid something that scares us, we experience a sense of failure. Thus, every time we put an avoidance or safety behaviour in to place, our fear and anxiety gains power and control, whilst we lose some. The more we do this the more we accumulate experiences of failure, which provide more and more evidence of our inability to overcome the problem. Furthermore, safety and avoidance behaviours also eliminate practice. Without practice we cannot gain mastery, and without mastery confidence is less likely to rise.
Consequently, our attempts to avoid our anxiety through safety and avoidance behaviours only serve to magnify and reinforce it to the point where it has reached the level of phobia. At this level, our nervous system hyperarousal is so high when we are faced with the situation, event, person, place or thing which we have conditioned ourselves to fear and avoid, that we lose all perspective and rational thought. We also go to such extreme lengths to persistently avoid this situation, event, person, place or thing, so much so that our fear and anxiety significantly interferes with other areas of our life – e.g., even when we are removed from the situation, event, person, place or thing, there is always an undercurrent of fear and lack of personal power/confidence/control.
© Amanda Morgan www.amandamorgancounselling.com
Read more about recovery from problematic anxiety on my website
Amanda Morgan is a counsellor practising in Cambridgeshire, Cambridge and Newmarket (Suffolk). She is passionate about supporting adults and young people (16+) to recover from low mood, anxiety and low self-esteem and enjoys writing about these subject areas.