The Anxiety Feedback Loop

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The human body values survival so highly that it devotes a large portion of its energy resources to watching for and reacting to potential dangers. The ‘fight-flight reaction system’ is our built-in mechanism to focus attention and help us manage with trouble. It works automatically, sounding alarms without the need for conscious control because waiting for us to guess what some noise, smell, unknown animal, etc. might be takes too long and could put our safety at risk. Instead, the five senses enjoy a direct link into the oldest parts of the brain, where decisions are made instantly about whether things are ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’ and the heart, lungs, muscles, nerves and emotions activate to prepare us for immediate action.

“Anxiety” occurs when our bodily defenses turn on and the resulting arousal is perceived as a frightening threat. Consider, for example, a situation where you’re at home and a thought about a presentation you’re to give next week at work suddenly leaves you feeling tense and anxious. This is totally normal, as human brains don’t care that threats like this one exist solely within the imagination; they act as they would if the threat was present right then and there, and trigger the body’s resources anyway. In the absence of an identifiable threat, many mistakenly believe that the their body is ill or malfunctioning, which further activates the alarm system and can result in even greater arousal. Not surprisingly, people with clinical anxiety are more likely than those without to: use medical services and use them more often, have more emergency room visits and hospital stays, have higher outpatient and prescription drug costs, and are more likely to be absent from work.*

Cognitive behaviour therapy is an effective treatment to break free from the anxiety loop.

*Marcinak, M, Lage, MJ, et al. (2004). Medical and productivity costs of anxiety disorders: Case control study. Depression and Anxiety, 19, pp. 112-120.