We can sometimes find ourselves caught in a vicious cycle of anxiety-induced thoughts that seem to be on constant repeat. The thing about people is that we try as much as we can to avoid feeling any sort of negative emotion; hence, whenever we feel stuck or anxious, we try to get ourselves out of the situations that cause us to feel that way. And as much as it may seem like a good thing to find getaways to make us seem okay, these can sometimes be escape mechanisms we unconsciously use to get back to our calm original state. The drawback here is that because we didn’t deal with that anxious situation and instead used escape tactics to get out, it tends to repeat itself over and over again into that vicious loop.
How do our thoughts, emotions, and actions contribute to the usage of escape mechanisms?
Here’s an example of how the cycle happens; let’s take the event of social gatherings (a party for example) where people tend to have feelings of anxiety or worry in these get togethers.
1. Thoughts about the gathering
A person walks in, looks at the crowd and thinks to themselves “something bad is going to happen to me here”. Whether it’s tripping over and embarrassing themselves, not being able to approach and hold conversations with others, or thinking people might be talking about the way they look. Whatever the reason is, simply thinking that something bad is going to happen is the first step of the anxiety loop.
2. Emotions about the gathering
Then what? Our thoughts about the situation lead us to step two, feeling unpleasant emotions. Anxiety and worry kick in. In parallel, a person here might experience bodily symptoms like sweaty hands, racing heart beats, and heavy breathing, all caused by these anxious thoughts and emotions about the social gathering our mind created. Did you know that feeling stressed and worried can be a habit! Later on in this piece, we’ll offer you ways to break it.
3. Actions towards the gathering
Step three: using escape mechanisms. It makes sense that after our minds formulated plenty of thoughts and emotions that occur unconsciously and can only happen in a couple of seconds, that we would choose to escape all of this mayhem. This can happen very quickly too; a person might get up, race to the door, escape, and…
4. Instant (unsustainable) relief
Feel instant relief. They might think to themselves “ahh I’m out of this place, I’m safe!”. But you know what actually happens here? We have reinforced the idea that these social gatherings, whether it was a party, an event, or any get-together, are dangerous. We convinced our minds to link gatherings with negative anxiety-induced thoughts, feeling, actions and that we need to escape from. To the point that whenever we are put in them, it automatically triggers this 4-step cycle. In a way, we are part of the creation of our own vicious loops. And since we are part of the process of creating them, we can be part of the process of breaking them!
Remember that not every feeling of relief is healthy. Sometimes we need to let ourselves deal with situations constructively to reach a healthier form of relief, instead of that instant one we feel that is not sustainable: next gathering, all these steps will come rushing back, again. This is because the small glimpses of escape we give ourselves is a short-term tool we use for in-the-moment kind of situations. A repetition of this unhealthy 4 step habit is bound to happen and for that we need to work on ways to break it.
The 3 C’s: Catch, Change, Control.
1. Caught Red Handed The first step in trying to break anxiety loops is to know where to find them. Try to think about places, people, situations, or experiences where you might find these cycles to ease the way of dealing with them later on. Catch them red handed! Here are some steps to think about.
- Identifying the trigger that makes you anxious
- Noticing the distracting behavior or escape mechanism you use
- Observing the rewarding, instant, unsustainable feeling you receive afterwards
2. Change and Break After identifying your triggers, behaviors, and outcomes, it’s time to know what to do next. Let’s try to use the information we’ve gathered on ourselves to plan ahead in any upcoming situation that reinvigorates the anxiety loop. We can challenge our negative thoughts, let our bodies cool down, adapt the mentality of staying put, and try to take things one step at a time. You now have the keys to the ignition, use them wisely by planning ahead to change and break the cycle. 3. Control the uncontrollable Now that you identified how your anxiety loop takes place and used the information to plan ahead, ask yourself who’s in control now? Without thinking, say it aloud: you! You are the only one who has access to all your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Even If some of them happen unconsciously, you are able to move them to conscious grounds. So that later on, when you’re in a place of trigger, you will have control over the situation and not the other way around.
A Word from o7therapy
It’s normal to get caught up in anxiety loops from time to time. To prevent it from taking over our lives, understanding how our emotions, thoughts, and actions contribute to the making of anxiety loops is important. In addition, finding ways to break that cycle where we catch, change, and control the outcome can be of great help in minimizing our anxiety-induced encounters.