The Anxiety Vortex: The thoughts that fuel anxiety is Part 1 of a four-part blog series on anxiety and anxiety disorders. In this series Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, BA, BSW, MSW, RSW, addresses the important issues surrounding anxiety and anxiety treatment. You might laugh, you might cry – okay, well you probably won’t do either of these things – but more importantly – you will learn to recognize when you are getting sucked into the whirling vortex of anxiety and what you can do about it. This week, we’ll discuss what anxiety is and the thoughts that fuel it.
- Part 1: The thoughts that fuel anxiety
- Part 2: Beliefs that fuel anxiety
- Part 3: Coping with Panic Attacks
- Part 4: Treating anxiety disorders and symptoms
The Anxiety Vortex: The thoughts that fuel anxiety
Life is hard. There, I said it. And we can all breathe a sigh of relief in acknowledgement. Why don’t we say it more often? As a mental health therapist, I regularly see people who are struggling with the impact of life’s stressors. It shows up as incessant rumination, “I can’t shut my brain off”, general overwhelmed-ness, “everything just feels like too much”, not to mention, sleep difficulties, procrastination/avoidance, panic, and a whole host of physical sensations. Any of these are pretty strong indicators that we are suffering from anxiety or an anxiety disorder. This week, as part of our 4 part series on anxiety, we’ll discuss what anxiety is and the key thought patterns that fuel it.
For some, nervousness and worry are a much too familiar, ever-present vice on the psyche. Some folks just can’t remember a time when anxious symptoms weren’t present. They’ve watched in awe as other people react calmly and steadily to life’s tumultuous terrain. For others, anxiety symptoms can pop up during prolonged periods of stress, after a few stressful life events, or sometimes even seem come out of nowhere.
Who is vulnerable to this vice? Well, I’d say, pretty much everybody. While causes and specific predispositions to these symptoms are multi-faceted, much research positions high left brain activity, (the rational, calculating side) as a potential causal factor. Why? well, we could speculate that those who rely heavily on their intellect, their reasoning calculating thoughts are more likely to forecast and predict in order to avoid danger. Although this might not seem like a dangerous pursuit, it is. The human brain can find associations wherever it attempts to. So basically, if you’re scanning for danger, you’ll find it. Heavy reliance on our analytic processing is actually what brings us to rumination, which is just a hop skip and a jump from landing in the vortex of anxiety symptoms.
The good news is, as easy as it is to fall into this trap, with the right therapeutic tools anxiety and anxiety disorders are highly treatable, even when the symptoms seem ever-present.
Let’s start with a practical definition.
At its most basic, anxiety is:
Overestimation of danger or threat – Worst case scenario might very well happen
Underestimation of my ability to cope – I will be helpless.
This is the work of anxiety. It takes a slightly threatening or even a somewhat benign situation, persuades us to zoom in on all its potential dangers, and magnifies the danger to an alarming degree. Moreover, it convinces us that if these dangers do emerge, we will be helpless to cope with them. The problem is that it is so enormously convincing. For the person who is experiencing anxiety, threat seems incredibly real, read: petrifying. What’s worse, we’re either unable to see possible solutions or remedies to these dangers – or our brain works to disqualify them in lieu of the hyper-focus on the threat.
In my assessment sessions, I ask people to describe in as much detail as possible what’s brought them in, and/or what they’ve been struggling with. This is the time that I really get a chance to know and understand my clients. What has been happening in their lives, how they’ve been coping and from this, we can determine the issue and course of our treatment. With clients who are suffering from anxieties the definition above is the central theme that emerges in our session and indicates our treatment plan.
For example, fictional client *Elina might say:
“If this project fails, I’ll be fired”
While *Tony, who has been avoiding highway driving might reflect,
“People driving on the highway don’t focus and they are likely to pull into my lane without seeing me”
Or, more vaguely *Corin might identify the times when the symptoms rise as when she starts to believe,
“I will never get everything done”
What all of these assertions have in common is that they highlight what is likely a hyper-focus or overestimation of threat and danger. (The first part of the anxiety definition).
When I dig a little deeper I can usually hear the second part of our definition: Underestimation of my ability to cope.
For example, *Elina might tell me,
“Of course getting fired would be awful, I’ll have no income, not be able to do anything, I could even lose my house. Wouldn’t you hate to get fired?”
When I ask him what would happen if the cars did turn into his lane, *Tony might tell me,
“I would get crushed up against the guard rail”
And when asked what might happen in her worst-case scenario, *Corin might say,
“I’ll get overwhelmed by piling tasks and end up folding under all the pressure.”
What each response has in common is their nod to the second part of the anxiety definition: underestimation of my ability to cope.
So, what do we do with these thoughts?
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), we learn to identify our thoughts, and then how to measure them for rationality and utility in order to reduce symptoms and recover. We stand back to observe our anxious thoughts, and weigh evidence from all angles. We learn skills to determine that the threat is not as dire or likely or even a useful focus. Once the thought is challenged appropriately the anxiety symptoms retreat for that particular situation. We then learn to recognize, challenge and change our over-arching anxiety thought patterns. And this begins to happen even from inside the anxiety vortex. As we apply the same tools to varied experiences of anxiety, our brains become more equipped to immediately perceive the fault in our anxious calculations, and thus the overall symptoms deteriorate.
Sounds too simple? Some of you might be thinking, “I tell myself my thoughts are irrational everyday and it doesn’t soothe the anxiety.” Often by the time some of us look into anxiety treatment, we have been trying this very thing on our own, likely to no avail. The anxious brain has created a whole series of neuropathways that fuel the anxiety vortex and yes, unstructured attempts to challenge our thoughts will likely not cure it. But, over the course of a graduated and structured treatment program, it absolutely can.
CBT is the most-evidence based psychotherapeutic intervention for anxiety and anxiety disorders. Multitudes of research studies suggest that the CBT intervention is as effective as psycho-pharmaceuticals, (anti-anxiety meds). For more on the structure of CBT and anxiety – stay tuned for Parts 2 and 4 of this series: Beliefs that fuel anxiety and How we treat it. For now, I hope this blog post has given you some food for thought on what anxiety is and the thoughts that fuel it.
See you all again on Tuesday June 28th for part 2.