When anxiety symptoms hit us, two things may happen. If we have never experienced an anxiety attack before, it can be very frightening, and we may feel confused and panicky, wondering what the heck is happening to us. Even if we have experienced them before, it can still be frightening, as it feels as if our body is out of control with weird uncomfortable sensations. As it begins we may feel anticipatory fear (“oh no, not this again”), or we may be afraid of what the attack is doing to our body (“my heart is pounding so hard, what if it is damaging itself?”). Of course, these anxious thoughts go on to produce even more fear.
The other thing that may happen is that a part of our brain interprets the physical fear response as emotional fear. That is, a part of our brain understands that the fear response occurs when we are afraid, so when the physical fear symptoms begin, it interprets the response as the fear emotion (“adrenaline is rushing around my body, my heart is pounding hard, so I must be very afraid”). This kind of fear is a lot more subtle and tends to happen below the level of conscious awareness.
At this point, we are experiencing anxiety symptoms and adding in even more fear (and anxious thoughts which produce more fear), which of course stimulates the fear response from the nervous system, which produces more anxiety symptoms and so on. We now have an endless cycle of fear and anxiety, maintaining the nervous system in the ‘sensitised’ state, i.e. sympathetic dominance.
See the diagram below for a simplified view of the anxiety cycle. Note that the trigger may be ongoing and continue to feed into the cycle, or the trigger may cease but the cycle continue regardless. The “fear” step includes both the fear emotion, and anxious thoughts which produce the fear emotion. Regardless of where the fear comes from, it stimulates the nervous system to produce the fear response. Next time we will be looking at ways that this vicious cycle can be broken.