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One Easy Question Can Help Break the Anxiety Cycle

Identifying when your fear is real or imagined helps break the anxiety cycle.

Source: Pixabay

Fear is defined as "an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat."

What places, people, and situations do you fear? Do you suffer from some type of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) that is triggered by a stimuli associated with an environment or location where you experienced something terrifying? I do.

In 2003, I was jumped and beaten up by three guys while walking home from dinner at Pete’s Tavern through Stuyvesant Park to my apartment in the East Village. For months after the incident, whenever I passed the fountain where they kicked my body and pounded my head, I had a neurobiological response that caused my levels of the "stress hormone" cortisol and adrenaline to skyrocket. I describe the incident in my first book, saying:

I was like a punching bag at their disposal, facedown at first and then curled up in a fetal position, getting kicked primarily in the torso and head. The feeling was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It felt like being in an industrial washing machine with about eight cinder blocks. Your whole life really does flash before your eyes when you think you're going to die.

Why does every detail of a fear-based experience become deeply embedded into long-term memory? Researchers have identified that the "stress hormone" cortisol and the “love hormone” oxytocin actually work together to create a double whammy of deep-rooted, fear-based memories during, and after, times of distress.

Most likely, these neurobiological responses are part of an evolutionary survival mechanism to protect someone from revisiting life-threatening situations by deeply embedding a traumatic experience and flagging the memory for importance.

Overcoming the Fear of Fear

Fear is a protective mechanism designed to protect us from danger and is key to our survival. Unfortunately, both real and imagined threats can trigger the fear response that perpetuates the anxiety cycle.

Anxiety disorders that lead to panic attacks can spiral out of control when the ‘fear of fear’ trumps the reality of the situation. Instead of being fearful of an actual threat, the fear response hijacks the brain and creates the neurobiological sensations of fear, even when, in reality, there is no real threat and nothing to be afraid of.

As a neurosurgeon, my father always said, "Anxiety is contagious." He had tremendous grace under pressure and would banish any surgical assistants who were anxious from his operating room. Interestingly, anxiety tends to run in families. Children of anxious parents are at a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Up to 50 percent of children of anxious parents grow up to be anxious adults.

Recently, child anxiety expert Golda S. Ginsburg of UConn Health, and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, tested a new one-year family therapy intervention as part of a study of 136 families with at least one parent with anxiety and at least one child between the ages of 6 and 13.

The September 2015 study, "Preventing Onset of Anxiety Disorders in Offspring of Anxious Parents: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Family-Based Intervention," appears in The American Journal of Psychiatry. The researchers found that family-based interventions hold promise for reducing the one-year incidence of anxiety disorders among the offspring of anxious parents.

In a press release, Ginsburg said, "The finding underscores the vulnerability of offspring of anxious parents. If we can identify kids at risk, let's try and prevent this. Anxiety and fear are protective and adaptive, but in anxious kids they may not be, because these children have thoughts about danger and threat when there really isn't one."

In order to cope with this potentially debilitating anxiety, kids start avoiding whatever provokes the anxious feelings. For example, if a child is afraid of the dark, he or she might insist on sleeping with the lights on. If they have a fear of failure, they might become afraid to try new things.

As the father of an 8-year-old, I’m well aware of Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Like all children (aged 5 to 12), my daughter’s rite of passage at this stage is "Industry (competence) vs. Inferiority." She faces the existential question: “Can I make it in the world of people and things?”

According to Erikson, if children are encouraged to master skills and face their fears, it leads to feelings of competence. If children aren’t encouraged to develop skills or given the autonomy to cope with challenges on their own—as is often the case with helicopter parenting—it can lead to an inferiority complex, lack of self-confidence, and anxiety.

Nature and nurture both appear to play a role in someone's predisposition for anxiety. Ginsburg points out that inborn temperament and life experiences both play a role in the anxiety cycle. The more negative experiences someone has while growing up, the greater the likelihood he or she will struggle with anxiety as an adult.

There is also a component of anxiety that is learned and inadvertently taught by parents who are prone to anxiety and model the behavior for their children. It's these learned behaviors and thought patterns that family interventions can help to change. The families who participated in therapy were taught by Ginsburg and colleagues to identify the signs of anxiety and how to reduce their fear. They practiced problem-solving skills, and exercised safe exposures to whatever made their child anxious.

"Is This Fear Based in Reality or Created by My Imagination?"

When a child or adult imagines something fearful, oftentimes, the mind can't tell if the threat is real or imaginary. So, instead of focusing on a fearful situation in the real world, someone focuses on the fearful thoughts in their mind. Whereas a real situation of danger is avoided or resolved, the mind can replay scary thoughts indefinitely.

One of the easiest ways to reduce anxiety and break this cycle is called the "reality check." Learning how to recognize when a fear is healthy, truthful, and based in reality (such as a growling dog) or unrealistic and imaginary (such as the boogie man hiding in the dark) is a coping mechanism that people of all ages can utilize. Simply asking, "Is this threat real or imagined?" can break the anxiety cycle.

In a press release, Ginsburg described how the reality check works,

We taught the kids how to identify scary thoughts, and how to change them. For example, if a child is afraid of cats and encounters one in the street, the child can first identify the scary thought: 'That cat is going to hurt me.' Then the child can test that thought—is it likely that the cat will hurt me? No, the cat doesn't look angry. It isn't baring its teeth or hissing, it's just sitting there. OK, I can walk past that cat and it won't do anything.

Most children who participated in this intervention and learned the "reality check" method had lower anxiety overall than children who didn't participate in the intervention with their families.

Conclusion: Reality Checks Can Help Break the Cycle of Anxiety

Pixabay/Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/Public Domain

Whenever something triggers a fear response, the easiest way to break the anxiety cycle is to take a reality check. Most times, you will realize that the fear is not based in reality and the anxiety will soon vanish. Facing your fears head-on is also an important part of dissipating their power.

Breaking free of your anxiety cycle may seem inconceivable. However, the secret to overcoming fear is simply to recognize the one element that you can take control of—which is to identify actual danger from imaginary threats—and to respond accordingly.

Fear is an important survival mechanism, but all too often the 'fear of fear' itself spirals out of control. Luckily, by doing an easy reality check, people of all ages can learn to break the anxiety cycle.

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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