The Anxiety Escalator

In my previous blog “Fear – Fight or Flight”, I discussed “the stress response” and how this occurs automatically in reaction to a threatening situation. The stress response can be triggered by either a physical or mental threat. If we are in physical danger the stress response readies our bodies for fight or flight. The brain does this by releasing the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol into our blood streams. If faced with a physical threat, these extra hormones are rapidly used up as we fight or run away, and our bodies quickly return to normal.

However, if the stress response is triggered by a mental threat, for instance, opening your gas bill and realising that you have used far more than you thought. And your only physical exertion is to sink onto your chair head in hands. The stress hormones are not used and remain in your system until your body has time to stabilise.

If this happens occasionally it will not significantly impair your health, but where people suffer from chronic stress it can lead to serious problems.

In my previous blog “Fear – Fight or Flight”, I also mentioned the abc model of anxiety. Where a thought becomes the reason for anxiety rather than a real and present danger.

(a) The situation….gives rise to….. (b) The thought……which in turn causes…

(c) The anxiety.

(The Situation -> The Thought -> The Anxiety)

This abc sequence can escalate by virtue of a feedback loop.

This happens when the feeling of the anxiety itself becomes the stimulus for a further catastrophic thought.

You make a second prediction to yourself, such as “I can’t cope with this; it’s really dangerous; I am so frightened”

The new catastrophic thought makes you feel even more anxious, which prompts more thoughts about the danger and so on.

This type of anxiety escalation is particularly difficult to stop when you are in a situation that you can’t avoid or where you feel out of control: in a large crowd of people, on an aeroplane, out at sea, angry at work but you can’t go home. Or when you feel an unusual pain in your body.

In these circumstances, it’s easy to imagine small changes that could create a situation where you may become overwhelmed and this often causes the anxiety escalator to kick in.

Your anxiety can be managed as long as your thoughts about difficult situations are realistic and accurate. But if you over estimate the danger and continually predict disaster, your anxiety will increase dramatically.

If you tell yourself every time you board a bus “It’s going to crash”, that’s not a rational belief. You are predicting danger, where statistics show that little exists.

The anxiety escalator usually has four phases.

  1. You begin to say unrealistic things to yourself that keep you in a constant state of alarm.

Your body tenses in the fight-or-flight reaction: your heart beats faster, you feel short of breath, you have butterflies in your stomach etc.

This chronic state of arousal makes you “sensitized” to any hint of possible danger.

Sensitization means that your nerves are set on a hair trigger. And the least unpleasant surprise, or conflict can set off a siege of panic.

  1. You begin to fear, fear itself.

As your body becomes more sensitized, you begin to anticipate panic attacks. You try to avoid them at all costs. Now you have a new fear. You not only fear boarding a bus, you also dread the symptoms that fear causes in your body.

3.You fight your own feelings as your fear of fear escalates.

You hate experiencing the symptoms of your fear: the pounding heart, the dizziness, the shortness of breath, the trembling legs, the lump in your throat, hot flashes and the confusion you feel in your mind. You battle against anything unusual happening in your body. You become hyper-vigilant for symptoms of an approaching panic. You come to fear any emotion or experience that triggers physical sensations that remind you of panic. Even feeling excited, exercising, or contracting illnesses like flu seems dangerous because the symptoms remind you of the feeling of panic.

4. Finally you begin to avoid, any situation, person, or thing that reminds you of the feelings of anxiety.

What perhaps started as nervousness walking empty streets becomes avoidance of going anywhere alone. What started as anxious thoughts when talking to the boss becomes avoidance of work altogether. What started as painful shyness at parties becomes avoidance of every social contact.

Fortunately there is a way to cope with this cycle of anxiety and panic. Hypnotherapy can help you to relax, accept alarming symptoms of panic, replace irrational beliefs with new responses, and shut off anxious feelings instead of intensifying them.

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