To break out of the fear cycle, we first need to understand how the cycle is formed and what keeps us in the fear cycle.
This is it how it works in context to a real danger.
Our senses detect external stimuli (a tiger), they interpret this sensory data (the tiger) as dangerous.
This ‘dangerous data package’ is passed on to our autonomic nervous system, the autonomic nervous system then makes the decision to activate the fight/flight response to keep us safe from the tiger.
Amazing changes our happening throughout our body. Our heart is beating faster to pump more blood around the body, our breathing becomes shallower in order to let in more oxygen, our pupils dilate so we can scan our environment more efficiently and so on. These changes are happening in order to keep us safe.
When we have dealt with the tiger, either through running away from it or killing it, then our senses detect no danger in our environment. The same process happens.
The ‘no danger’ data is sent from our senses to our brain, our brain passes this information on to the part of the brain responsible for autonomic responses.
Because there is no danger detected by our senses, the autonomic nervous system makes a decision to activate the opposite of the fight/flight response = the rest/digest response or what is also known as the relaxation response.
When fear becomes a disorder = anxiety
The fear cycle is formed when we misinterpret discomfort for danger. When we misinterpret the fight/flight response as the danger itself.
This can happen when we fear a certain thought or bodily sensation, or it can be when we react to an external stressor in the modern world such as a pressurising situation like a job interview.
We respond to a normal bodily function reacting to stress with something like: “What’s happening to me?” “Am I going crazy?” Am I having a heart attack?” You know, the common worst case scenario reactions we have.
Because the stress response feels so uncomfortable, we start to panic over the stress response and this is what puts us into the cycle.
It’s a feedback loop and I’ll now explain what that is.
The same process which happens when we detect an external threat, happens when there is no threat whatsoever.
When our senses cannot detect any danger out there in the world, we internalise and perceive our anxious sensations and/or thoughts to be the danger. this fearful reaction we have to our thoughts and/or bodily sensations is sent back to our brain. Our brain sends this information to the part of the brain responsible for activating the fight/flight response.
The part of the brain responsible for activating the fear response makes the decision to press start and so adrenaline is released into the bloodstream.
We then panic and fear this fight/flight response because it feels so powerful and intense. This fearful reaction is what triggers more anxiety because we are caught up in a feedback loop.
By responding with fear to the panic attack (fight/flight response), we are literally telling our brain that there’s a tiger in the room. There’s only one thing the brain is going to do when we react in fear, activate more anxiety.
More anxiety is activated which produces more symptoms, we fear these symptoms and more anxiety is activated as a defence mechanism and so the cycle repeats itself.
How to break out of this fear cycle
The way to break out of this fear cycle is to no longer fear the fear. There you go… that’s all you need to know. Off you go then…
If only it was this simple. Whilst understanding that the fear/anxiety is completely harmless, this is not enough to break out of the cycle. It definitely helps to have this understanding in place. It does allow us to lose some of the of fear.
But, we have to change our reactions and behaviours in order to completely break out of the fear cycle.
Breaking out of the fear cycle looks a little something like this…
Understanding that fear is ultimately designed to keep us safe from danger. It’s not an enemy and a monster out to get us, never has been and never will be.
All you have to do is look back into our past and see how this protection mechanism (fear/anxiety) performed to keep our ancestors safe from predators.
Fear is supposed to feel scary, otherwise it wouldn’t be fear. The reason why we are supposed to feel scared when experiencing fear is because it’s an alarm system. Alarm systems are not pleasant.
They are supposed to keep us on edge and alert. So, if our lives are at risk, then you can bet that the fight/flight response is the mother of all alarm systems.
It’s so important to understand that however bad you feel, is perfectly normal because you’re supposed to feel bad in anxiety. Even if you feel like you are dying, it’s completely normal.
Don’t ever think there is something horribly wrong with you because there isn’t. It’s just a misfiring of the fear response which is stuck in disorder.
Accepting that the fight/flight response is harmless will allow us to not be as afraid of it as before. Without this understanding it’s impossible to not be afraid of it.
How on earth do we know what’s going on inside our bodies when we don’t understand what anxiety/fear is? Obviously fear of the unknown breeds more fear so having that understanding in place allows us to accept the anxiety and fear it less.
Another part of accepting is giving up the fight with the anxiety. When we fight our anxiety, we are getting involved in a losing battle.
The anxiety is stored in the autonomic part of the brain. The part of the brain that is completely out of our conscious control.
It’s like fighting against a stream of water… what on earth is the point? You can’t stop it. It’s already happening so no matter how much you try to stop or change the direction of the current, it isn’t going to happen.
In the same way that fighting against anxiety is a pointless exercise. It’s already happening, why fight against something that already is? It only leads to more inner conflict against ourselves, so put down your weapons and surrender to the anxiety.
Whilst this sounds like it is weakness, it most certainly isn’t. It is true empowerment. You cannot reclaim your power through fighting and struggling with anxiety. You can only reclaim your power through giving up the fight.
When you stop resisting anxiety, you short-circuit the fear loop because by allowing it, you are telling your brain that it’s not a threat. The behaviours of resistance just teach your brain that anxiety is a danger which in turn will only create more anxiety to keep you safe and protected.
Is acceptance by itself enough to heal from anxiety? In my opinion, I don’t think so. I definitely think it plays a massive part in the recovery process, but we have to stop some behaviours in order to fully break out of the fear cycle.
The behaviours we have to stop doing to break out of the cycle are the behaviours that keep reinforcing the anxiety. The behaviours that keep sending a message to our brain that there is something wrong with us.
Something to always be on the lookout for which only results in increased anxiety levels.
Things like spending our time complaining about how we feel to fellow sufferers on forums. Whilst it can be reassuring to know that we are not alone, it does nothing but keep us stuck in a cycle of misery and self-pity.
No solutions can come from this. And what’s worse, most of the forums out there just get you to focus on the anxiety rather than recovery.
I’m not saying that you should avoid anxiety forums and groups. I’m saying you should avoid the forums and groups which make you feel more anxious. You know which ones they are.
Find the forums and groups which are recovery based. Again, you will intuitively know which ones are recovery based by the way you emotionally respond to the information presented.
Constantly entering into dialogue with other people about our anxiety is another way we reinforce the condition.
Whenever I talked about my anxiety, including all the disturbing thoughts and uncomfortable sensations, I was giving them more credibility and power.
This is another way in which we tell our brain that we obviously have a serious problem. I’m not saying that anxiety disorders are not a serious problem, because they are one of the most debilitating conditions ever.
I’m saying that anxiety disorders are not dangerous to our health or sanity. They just feel like they are.
Constantly complaining and moaning about how we feel to other’s just makes the anxiety seem more important than it really is.
Anxiety feeds off of our focus, so if we keep talking about it and focusing on it, then it’s only going to grow.
Another way in which we keep ourselves in the cycle is having too much time to dwell on and ruminate over anxiety. I was guilty of this.
I would spend most of my waking day just caught up in my thoughts and trying to change them. All this did was create further resistance.
I remember now that I would sit in my arm chair and just lose myself obsessing over my anxious thoughts and feelings. I could be sitting there for hours and not even realising.
If ruminating over our anxiety only makes us sink deeper and deeper into the condition, then it makes sense to do the complete opposite.
Shift our focus away from our internal world of thoughts and sensations by engaging our mind in our hobbies.
I don’t recommend going crazy though. You don’t have to fill every waking moment of every day with your hobbies, that’s a little bit over the top.
Just make sure you are breaking the habit of fixating on the anxious thoughts and sensations though. Having lots of spare time where we are always idle is the perfect climate for anxiety to breed.
As our current default setting is anxiety, it’s only normal then for our attention to focus on our anxious thoughts and sensations. We can change this.
By focusing on other things non-anxiety related, we can fool our subconscious mind into thinking that we are perfectly safe.
Remember, the brain cannot tell the difference between fiction and reality. If we behave that everything is okay, the anxiety will be switched off because the brain will receive information based on our current behaviours and will understand that the high level of anxiety isn’t necessary.
Can you see why doing the opposite of this, I.e., focusing all of our attention on everything anxiety related just convinces our brain that we need to be anxious?
Breaking old behaviours obviously takes a lot of time though because old habits die hard and the brain has to rewire itself.
All of these behaviours such as fearing, resisting and focusing on anxiety are sending the wrong message to the brain. They are giving off the impression that there is a problem (danger) to deal with in our environment.
So, at the end of the day, we are the ones who are keeping ourselves stuck in the cycle of fear/anxiety. We can take back our power by changing our responses and behaviours, the ones mentioned above.
I trust you found this post helpful in some way. If you feel there was anything I missed out of this article then please let me know because I try my best to include everything. Your feedback goes a really long way.
Thank you 🙂
Until next time