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The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety

If you struggle with anxiety and find that you are avoiding doing things because of the fear, then you may be stuck in a vicious cycle of anxiety.

What is this vicious cycle of anxiety, and how can you break this cycle, so you can stop avoiding the things you would really like to be doing.

What are safety behaviours that can contribute to you continuing to live in this vicious cycle of anxiety and what are coping stratergies that could help you break this vicious cycle of anxiety.

That is what I am covering in this blog.

Let me start by telling you a little story about my experience in Ikea about 20 years ago.

Ikea Bristol had newly opened and I had heard about how brilliant it was and thought I would go and have a browse.

Now if any of you have been to Ikea, you will know they have a very set way of laying out their store so you don’t really just browse, you have to walk around the whole store.

So I had walked around for a while and was in a good place just enjoying myself.

That was until I decided I'd seen enough and wanted to leave the store.

That’s when things started to change for me, after walking round and round for what seemed like hours I still didn’t seem to be anywhere nearer to the exit, I then found myself starting to get a bit stressed, how was I going to find my way out?

After more aimless wandering I felt myself start to get a bit hot and my heart started to beat a bit faster, still not finding a way out the stress started to make me very anxious, I started to breathe a little faster, my heart was beating faster and I started to become a bit light headed, I was overcome by an overwhelming fear of never being able to escape, and a wave of panic seemed to come out of nowhere and I became really scared.

I could hear the blood rushing in my ears and my vision became blurred, I was hyperventilating and I thought I was going to faint.

I don’t really know how long I just stood there in the middle of Ikea feeling trapped, scared, and in complete panic not knowing what to do with myself, I was convinced I was going to die in the middle of Ikea.

Eventfully, and to be honest I don’t really remember how, or how long it took, I did finally find my way out of Ikea.

What I do remember is running to my car and bursting into tears, sitting there shaking and crying, for a good half hour, until I felt calm enough to be able to drive home.

I vowed I would never go to an Ikea again, why would I put myself through that again. Even someone mentioning the name Ikea would bring me out in a sweat, my brother told me about furnishing his home from Ikea and I remember thinking why would he want to do that? my whole being had a fear of Ikea.

So why have I shared this story with you.

Well for years I avoided Ikea, my anxiety about the store led me to avoiding it and I put in what I thought were good safety behaviours, if I never went there then I wouldn’t have a panic attack and wouldn’t experience those terrible feelings again.

I had created my own vicious cycle of anxiety.

So what is the vicious cycle of anxiety?

  • Well anxiety is essentially our worry about a potential threat-Ikea was my threat

  • Anxiety is about trying to cope with a future event that you believe will be negative-my experience of Ikea was negative and I didn’t want to cope with that experience again.

  • Anxiety means you pay more attention to possible signs of a potential threat and look internally to see if you can cope with that threat- Ikea was a potential threat I was convinced I couldn't cope with, if I looked internally my memories and emotional experience were signs I wouldn’t cope, I hadn’t done before so I couldn’t next time.

  • When you start to notice those anxious symptoms you think that you cant cope and you become more anxious-For me even the thought of Ikea would bring on those anxious symptoms and so I would become more anxious which would mean I would keep avoiding

vicious cycle of anxiety
The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety courtesy of

This is the start of your vicious cycle of anxiety.

1. A situation causes you anxiety leading to uncomfortable symptoms, worry, fear etc

2. You turn to your safety behaviours such as avoiding the situation.

3. You get short term relief from your anxiety, your symptoms lessen and you have a feeling of relief that you avoided the situation

4. Long term anxiety grows-the fear that led to the avoidance gets worse and your brain learns that when you avoid an anxiety provoking situation your symptoms go away.

This results in your symptoms still being there, or maybe even worse, next time you confront the same situation and so you avoid it again.

5. The whole vicious cycle starts all over again.

It makes sense doesn’t it, if you feel anxious about something you would avoid it and reduce your anxiety, but that means you become unwilling to ever confront your anxiety, not the situation but your anxiety, you continue to believe that anxiety is a dangerous emotion, you never learn whether the situation could be OK.

You continue to look for the danger in this situation and in this way you increase the anxiety and you may even start to transfer this fear to other situations.

So for example my experience in Ikea meant I avoided Ikea, I could have transferred this fear to all shops and found myself avoiding going shopping full stop.

What are safety behaviours?

Safety behaviours are the actions we take to help us feel safe-so mine was avoidance. Avoidance is one of the primary safety behaviours for people with anxiety.

red stop sign preventing anxiety
stop the safety behaviours

Other safety behaviours could be

Relying on medication to help you through those anxious moments ie taking a diazepam so that you can fly

Drinking alcohol ie having a few drinks before attending any social event

Always having an exit plan ie escaping as soon as you feel uncomfortable

Relying on others to get you through ie never going anywhere on your own

Unfortunatley although they feel like the right thing to do, to help you feel safe, they can become part of your vicious cycle of anxiety,

For years I maintained my anxiety about Ikea and continued to avoid the place.

However it is possible to turn the cycle around and start to create a positive cycle that will help you manage and overcome anxiety.

But what you don’t want to do is be critical of yourself and start that critical voice in your head calling you stupid for not being able to do it or a failure because you cant do what 'other' people do.

It is important you approach this by being kind to yourself, slowly and gradually building yourself up to confront that feared situation.

This will help you build confidence, help to reduce your anxiety and will allow you to start putting in place strategies that are helpful to you and eventually break the cycle.

I'm sure you’ve heard people say 'just jump in at the deep end and get it over and done with', and some people may be able to do that, but I wouldn't advise it I would take a step by step approach.

We call this graded exposure so you build your confidence and learn to use other skills such as coping strategies rather than safety behaviours.

What is a coping Strategy?

Good coping is approaching your fears and managing your reactions and managing the situation you are fearful of.

You take things slowly and learn to cope with your emotions in the situation, so a step by step approach prevents you becoming overwhelmed enabling you to cope with those emotions.

  • Safety Behaviours are designed to eliminate the danger

  • Coping strategies are designed to help you approach, stay in and manage situations that you are fearful of.

  • Safety behaviours maintain and increase your anxiety

  • Coping strategies lead to a decrease in anxiety over time.

Once the anxiety cycle is broken

1. A situation that previously led to anxiety may still cause slight anxiety

2. You use your coping strategies to remain in the situation

3. You have a slight increase in your anxiety but your learnt coping skills enable you to reduce your anxiety and physical symptoms

4. You have a greater belief in your ability to control your own anxiety response

5. Next time that situation arises you feel more confident you will manage and you don’t look to your safety behaviours that prevent you from being in the situation.

As you can see you will not be completely free of anxiety but you will be in a position to manage it better, you are in control of the anxiety instead of the anxiety being in control of you.

I have now been to Ikea 1 or 2 times since and not had a panic attack, I’m not going to lie its still not somewhere I would put myself out to visit, but I do know if I needed to I could.

Of course if I wanted to avoid Ikea for ever that would probably be OK, it wouldn’t restrict my life in any way.

However some of the things that you are avoiding may well be interfering with you being able to live life in an enjoyable or even functional way.

At some point being able to stop avoiding and learning to break your vicious cycle of anxiety would be beneficial to you.

This can be a tough journey to take on your own, in therapy you would have the support of the therapist to help you with the graded exposure.

You would work together to uncover your safety behaviours you currently rely on and learn how to introduce helpful coping strategies.

Its unlikely to be easy, but think about how your life could change if you were brave enough to ask someone to help you with this.

Laura Knight is a qualified and experienced Counsellor and a registered member of BACP (The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)

She is an approved Anxiety UK Therapist and has her own private practice SeeClear Counselling, in Poole Dorset.

She can offer face to face, telephone and video counselling sessions

Laura also spent some time working with Dorset Mind delivering education to local employers on how to identify and manage stress at work reducing the impact that work stress can have on peoples every day lives.

Laura found that many of her clients would present with Anxiety and because of this enhanced her training to include CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) as there is evidence to suggest that CBT is effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression.

Laura now focuses on working with adults who struggle with Anxiety within her private practice, working with them to reduce the scary physical and emotional symptoms they experience.

For more information about Laura please visit her website

Or visit her Facebook page

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