Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/15/2022
Some people who deal with an anxiety disorder may get stuck in the cycle of anxiety. Unfortunately, once you’re in this anxiety cycle, it can feel really difficult to get out.
There are various anxiety disorders people can experience. Whether you have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or something else, you’ll likely have to deal with a number of symptoms as part of the anxiety cycle.
To learn how to pull yourself out of one of these worry cycles, it helps to understand them a bit more. Keep reading for everything you need to know about the cycle of anxiety, along with tips to help you stop it in its tracks.
Before diving into what an anxiety cycle is, you need to have a solid understanding of anxiety in general.
Anxiety is defined as a feeling of dread, nervousness or fear. There are also physical symptoms that may go along with it, such as sweating, a rapid heartbeat and tense muscles.
It’s totally normal to feel these things from time to time, like before a job interview or when making a big purchase. But if your anxiety doesn’t go away or worsens over time, you may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.
Common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder and phobias.
If you have one of these anxiety disorders, getting stuck in a cycle of anxiety may be more common. Once an anxiety cycle is triggered, there are thought to be four stages, which look something like this:
Phase 1. You have certain concerns or expectations that lead to worry and anxiety.
Phase 2. You then try to avoid the thing that makes you anxious or engage in rituals that help you feel better.
Phase 3. When you avoid the trigger or engage in those rituals, you begin to feel better, which then reinforces the thing that made you anxious to begin with.
Phase 4. You still have anxiety over the thing that began the cycle, so the cycle restarts as soon as you’re reexposed to that thing.
This can take place with any type of anxiety, though it often occurs with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
So, what does this look like in real life? Here’s an example of how it could play out:
Let’s say you have social anxiety disorder and get nervous around groups of people. You get invited to a work function. Leading up to it, you feel extreme anxiety, worrying about how it’ll go. Your anxiousness gets so bad, you decide to skip it — and feel immediate relief. Then you get invited to another work event, and the anxiety starts all over again.
The truth is, your anxiety may not be triggered by anything specific. You could just suddenly feel anxious and start spiraling.
That said, there are specific things that can trigger an anxiety cycle. They differ for everyone, but common triggers include:
Uncertainty of anticipation of the future
Lack of sleep
Concerns over upcoming events
Stressful life events
Being reminded of a past trauma
Again, what triggers your anxiety is pretty personal. For instance, if you’re afraid of spiders, seeing a spider could do it, whereas that wouldn’t necessarily trigger someone who doesn’t have a phobia around spiders.
If you’re feeling any anxiety symptoms, there’s a chance you’re in a vicious cycle. As a reminder, this may include physical symptoms like a racing heart and sweating, along with feelings of nervousness and dread.
If you think you’re in an anxiety cycle, there are ways to identify what stage you are in.
The first stage, when that anxiety is triggered, tends to evoke a flight or fight response. That second stage, when you want to avoid whatever is causing you anxiety, is usually accompanied by physical symptoms or bodily sensations (think a tight chest or rapid heart rate).
By the end of the cycle, you likely feel exhausted. Suffice it to say, living through this vicious cycle of anxiety can take quite a toll on you. Because of this, it’s in your best interest to learn how to tame levels of anxiety and get yourself out of the cycle as soon as possible.
Now that you know just how unpleasant it can be to live in this cycle of anxiety, the next step is to learn tactics to help lower your levels of anxiety and minimize that mental stress.
When it comes to treating a cycle of anxiety, it’s worth considering both immediate things you can do, along with long-term treatments. The latter will take more time to reduce your anxiety levels but may eventually prevent it from popping up so frequently.
Diaphragmatic breathing (also known as deep breathing) can help stop anxiety in its tracks. Research supports this and shows it may reduce mental stress in the moment.
To try this type of breathing, follow these steps:
Lay on your back with your knees bent. Put a pillow under your head if it helps you feel more comfortable. Then, put a hand on your chest and another on your stomach.
Breathe in slowly through your nose until you feel your stomach push against your hand.
Blow the breath out through pursed lips, tightening your stomach muscles at the same time.
Repeat this process for five to 10 minutes.
When you feel an anxiety cycle coming on, try to pause and meditate. A 2014 study found that just 20 minutes of mindful meditation may be enough to reduce overall brain activity, which can positively impact your anxiety levels.
A review of 47 randomized clinical trials done by John Hopkins supports this finding. The assertion was that meditation assists people in navigating stress and anxiety.
Don’t know how to meditate? No problem! There are tons of apps you can download that offer guided meditation with all different themes, from helping with chronic stress to boosting positive emotions. And you can often filter meditations by how much time you have.
If you feel an anxiety cycle kicking into high gear and are flooded with negative emotions, consider hitting the gym.
Exercise can help with staying mentally well. You may even start to notice a difference after five minutes of getting your heart rate up. Plus, regular physical activity has been found to lower anxiety.
If the gym isn’t your thing, take a walk around your neighborhood or go on a bike ride. You’ll be amazed at the positive emotions and feelings a little workout session can bring.
Remember how we talked about playing the long game? That’s where therapy comes in. Whether you opt for in-office visits or online therapy, this mental health practice can teach you how to deal with the negative emotions brought on by an anxiety cycle as they happen.
A mental health provider can assist in determining the right type of therapy for your anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the more common types used for mental stress and anxiety. With CBT, you’ll identify patterns that boost your anxiety. Next, you’ll work on coming up with ways to change those behaviors.
Another longer-term treatment option for anxiety cycles is anti-anxiety medication. You’ll need to work with a healthcare professional to figure out what the best prescription medication is for your unique needs.
Common medications prescribed for anxiety disorders include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), like sertraline, beta blockers and benzodiazepines.
Just about everyone feels anxiety at some point in their life (if not many points). For example, it can pop up over stressful life events or when you try new things.
But if your anxiousness is more than just fleeting, you may be dealing with one of the many anxiety disorders (like generalized anxiety disorder, chronic anxiety or panic disorder).
No matter what’s at the root of your nervous feelings, sometimes you get sucked into a cycle of anxiety. These cycles can be easy to get stuck in and may even cause bodily sensations.
During an anxiety cycle, people tend to get triggered, then try to avoid whatever’s causing their anxiety. From there, they often feel slight relief until they have to face whatever caused them anxiety, at which point the cycle restarts.
Taking deep breaths, meditating and exercising can help break you out of an anxiety cycle. Another way to treat anxiety cycles is through medication or therapy, both of which have been found to help anxiety disorders.
To figure out what treatment option may be best for you, schedule a consultation with a mental health professional at Hers.