Anxiety often comes in four stages. Understanding how the cycle of anxiety works may help you navigate your symptoms.
Everyone experiences anxiety differently. But anxious thoughts and feelings are typically universal, ranging from worry to fear to tension. Symptoms of anxiety may also include sweating, a rapid heart rate, or high blood pressure.
Oftentimes, people who live with anxiety experience what’s known as the cycle of anxiety. Knowing the signs of the 4 stages of anxiety may help you manage your symptoms as they arise.
“The cycle of anxiety is when an event or situation happens and the person feels a lack of control or fear and avoids coping in order to escape intense emotions,” explains Jaclyn Gulotta, PhD, LMHC, a licensed psychologist in Florida.
According to Gulotta, avoidance plays a key role in perpetuating the cycle of anxiety. She says as people attempt to avoid their anxiety, they may become further triggered.
“Their symptoms increase with more anxiety, panic, and worried negative thought patterns,” Gulotta says.
The 4 stages of anxiety
The cycle of anxiety includes four stages:
- Stage 1. Feeling anxious and wanting to deal with it.
- Stage 2. Attempting to avoid the situation.
- Stage 3. Feeling a temporary sense of relief
- Stage 4. Returning to a state of heightened anxiety.
Jack Stein, PhD, LCSW, a therapist in Florida, shares how the 4 stages might play out in the following scenario:
- Stage 1. The thought of standing in front of a group of people at work and delivering a presentation makes you break out in a cold sweat.
- Stage 2. Your inclination is to escape, so you call in sick to work that day.
- Stage 3. You immediately feel relieved since you don’t have to do the task that’s causing you to feel so anxious.
- Stage 4. This relief is short-lived when you learn that the presentation has been rescheduled for the following week, causing you to feel anxious all over again.
According to Gulotta, the first stage of anxiety usually includes an automatic fight-or-flight response.
The second stage might involve bodily sensations or reactions that may lead to some form of self-protection. By the fourth and final stage, you might feel mentally, emotionally, and physically drained.
Your answers to the following questions can help you identify which stage of anxiety you’re in to help you manage your symptoms.
Determine the stage
Gulotta shares a few questions you might ask yourself to pinpoint which stage of the anxiety cycle you’re in:
- What’s happening to create this heightened anxiety? (i.e., Is it an event, thought, feeling, memory, or image?)
- What was your initial reaction?
- What did you do in the moment?
Check your thoughts
Next, Gulotta says it may be helpful to check your thoughts:
- What unhelpful thoughts are you having in this moment?
- Do you notice any pattern of overthinking, obsession, self-doubt, or catastrophizing?
Scan your body
A body scan can help you determine any physical response or reaction you may be experiencing:
- What physical reaction or sensations are you noticing?
- Is there an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, or sweating?
- Are you having stomach pain or discomfort?
Taking a moment to reflect on how you coped with your anxiety can help inform how you manage it the next time it arises.
- Did you avoid the situation?
- Did you mask your feelings with unhealthy coping strategies?
Changing the way you think, feel, and act takes time and commitment, but it’s possible to successfully manage your anxiety whenever it pops up. “The first step involves becoming aware of the cycle,” Stein says.
Here are a few ways to navigate the cycle of anxiety to break free from any patterns you may be stuck in.
Reverse the 4 stages
According to the Government of West Australia’s Centre for Clinical Interventions, it’s possible to break the cycle of anxiety by reversing it. Consider the following 4-step reversal process:
- Step 1. Try to confront feared situations without the help of “safety behavior” situations (or unhealthy coping mechanisms).
- Step 2. Allow yourself to experience a short-term or slight increase in anxiety, followed by a decrease in physical symptoms.
- Step 3. Lean into healthy coping skills to help you reduce your anxiety to a manageable level.
- Step 4. Consider your ability to control your reactions and responses.
Find ways to cope
No matter which stage of the anxiety cycle you’re in, there are strategies you can try to help you cope. Gulotta offers the following tips to try to help you break the cycle:
- deep breathing exercises
- being mindful and present
- prioritizing self-care
- practicing meditation and yoga
- positive affirmations
- journaling your thoughts
- building a strong support system
- confronting your thoughts (e.g., “Is this helpful?” “Am I leading with feelings or facts?” “What evidence do I have that what I’m thinking is true?”)
- reminding yourself that what you’re feeling is impermanent
Though it may seem challenging to get through any type of anxiety in the moment, Gulotta says that taking a break to remind yourself that you’re in control of how you respond and react may offer some relief.
Of course, therapy can help you manage your symptoms too.
The cycle of anxiety is a 4-stage process that may cause you to feel anxious, avoid situations, find short-term relief, and experience stronger anxiety thereafter.
This may become a “vicious cycle” that’s challenging to navigate, especially for those who lean into avoidance strategies. But understanding each of the 4 stages can help you find relief from your symptoms.
Remember, if you need help managing your anxiety, you can always connect with a mental health professional for more guidance.