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The Importance of Understanding the Anxiety Cycle in Recovery

There is a strong link between addictive behaviour and anxiety. One of the most common reasons why individuals turn to alcohol or drugs in the first place is that they are trying to escape this type of mental discomfort. Getting drunk or high can provide some temporary relief from anxiety but, over time, it actually makes the situation much worse as it adds fuel to the anxiety cycle.

When people enter recovery, they need to develop effective tools for dealing with anxiety. Self-medication is a terrible way to deal with it; however, if the person has nothing to replace it with, they are going to see using alcohol or drugs as better than nothing. In order to develop better tools in sobriety for dealing with anxiety, it is first necessary to understand the anxiety cycle.

What is the Anxiety Cycle?

The anxiety cycle begins with some type of stressor. This could involve anything that you perceive as a threat - those who have a tendency towards anxiety are highly skilled at finding threats in their environment. The most common stressors include things such as finances, relationships, and health concerns.

The next stage in the cycle occurs when the person reacts to the stressor by churning out negative thoughts. For example, if you are worried about losing your job, it may lead to thoughts such as 'I'm a failure' or 'I'm a terrible provider for my family'.

The negative thinking created by the stressor then triggers the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety. You may feel physically sick and your body can enter a stage of increased alertness (the fight or flight mechanism).

The fact that you are now feeling so negative means your mind feels as if it is under attack, so you see potential threats everywhere. Now you are not only thinking that you will lose your job, but that your husband/wife is going to leave you as well. This triggers more negative thinking and more physical symptoms. The anxiety cycle can continue like this until you are no longer able to function at all and you have a breakdown.

How to break free of the Anxiety Cycle

Once you understand how the anxiety cycle works, it becomes much easier for you to be able to escape it. Here are some tips for how you can do this:

  • Most stressors that trigger the anxiety cycle are overestimations of potential dangers, so it is important that you are able to get things into perspective. Unless you are a mind reader, there is no way you can know what is going to happen tomorrow.
  • There are three possible outcomes of any uncertain situation - positive, negative, or neutral. In the majority of cases the outcome is either going to be positive or neutral, so it does not make sense to expect the worst to happen.
  • Mindfulness training is one of the most effective techniques around for managing anxiety, but it only works if you make this practice a part of your life.
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy can make it easier for you to identify what is happening with the anxiety cycle - this means you will be able to stop it even before it gets going.
  • Anxiety puts your body into a state of high alert, but you can reverse these symptoms by practicing relaxation techniques.
  • Uncontrolled anxiety is usually associated with illogical thinking patterns including catastrophising, exaggerating, ignoring the positive, black and white thinking, and being hyper-alert for threats. By learning how to overcome these illogical thinking patterns, you can more easily escape the anxiety cycle.
  • If anxiety continues to negatively affect your sobriety, it is important to speak to your doctor and/or get help from a therapist.
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