Why won't my anxiety go away?


What is a cycle? It’s something that happens over and over again, right? If you struggle with anxiety, you know all too well the feeling of being trapped in this cycle and being unable to get rid of your anxiety. You feel at odds with your own brain. It's crucial to see this cyclical pattern for what it is in order to do anything about it. 

So how does anxiety trap us? It’s a sneaky old thing. Here’s a simple explanation: When we experience anxiety, we are feeling threatened, unsafe, uncertain, afraid. You've heard of fight or flight? When we perceive a threat, our body kicks into gear to deal with that threat. This reaction often involves increased heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath, GI symptoms, etc. It is our body’s evolved and wise way of focusing all of our physiological systems on the threat at hand and keeping us alive. It is normal and we need this fear instinct.

But…there’s a problem. 99.9% of the time, there is no actual threat to our physical safety. It's sort of a lingering instinct (that is of course still useful when appropriate) from a time when our species did have many more realistic threats. But because typically we're not actually in danger, we don’t really know what to do with this uncomfortable feeling and surge of signals our body is receiving. Sometimes anxiety is less physical, but our minds might be reeling with thoughts and endless "what if's." We're often quite afraid of these unsettling feelings and thoughts. We might search for reassurance that we are okay and try to rid ourselves of any shred of doubt. We want safety and certainty. 

Going forward, we avoid any situations we predict will give us that same feeling of anxiety. Or we distract ourselves in any way possible (Netflix, food, social media, alcohol, chores). Or we suffer through an experience and are miserable, not really present, and eagerly waiting its end the entire time. We (rightfully) find anxiety unpleasant and unwanted. We try to make it go away at all costs. And phew! We feel better because we have averted that scary situation and therefor the discomfort of anxiety. In doing so, we avoid the feeling of anxiety. 

Cycle of anxiety

But…our anxiety pops back up. Doubt has wormed its way into our thinking or we are yet again confronted with the same situation we successfully avoided a few days ago. And because we avoided it, our brain has confirmed that yes, this IS a thing to be afraid of. We again experience anxiety. We set ourselves up for long-term suffering and ongoing anxiety reactions. We've robbed ourselves of a chance to see that we can handle the discomfort.

The cycle repeats.

Avoidance = short-term relief. what we are actually avoiding isn’t so much the trigger itself, but the feeling of uncertainty, discomfort, and fear.

So how do we break out of the cycle? So glad you asked! Brace yourself. It not going to sound fun (but I swear it's not that bad): exposure to anxiety. Through therapy, with a skilled counselor, you can learn to ease into exercises that help you negotiate a new relationship to anxiety. It's paradoxical, but because anxiety is fueled by avoidance and resistance, exposure exercises give you an opportunity to fully experience anxiety, in all its uncomfortable glory, and gain confidence that it's survivable or even not all that bad! Forge a new cycle!

There are other more subtle reasons that anxiety sticks around, no matter what you seem to try. But understanding this basic cycle of avoidance is a wonderful place to start in getting a handle on your anxiety. 

Stay tuned for a post that digs into exposure work.