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Understanding the Anxiety / Stress Cycle

When an emotional trigger is perceived as threatening to your physical or psychological well-being, (values or belief system) an immediate need to respond or to defend yourself is created. 

When danger is imminent, it is important to have mechanisms that enable you to respond quickly and efficiently and to protect yourself and your loved ones from physical harm.  In most situations, the threat is not real — and yet your body prepares you in the same way to deal with the situation. 

Triggers are experiences or events that elicit a strong emotional reaction. Just as apiece of music or a familiar scent may remind you of happy moments, certain situations can bring up negative feelings such as anger, frustration, or fear, any of which may surface abruptly. 

 When you are in a dire situation, it can be difficult to recognize what is going on.  The intent here is to help you become aware of what happens to you physically when you become emotionally upset and get angry, and to show you a way to overcome anger.  In order to stop or change your response to the triggers in your life, it’s helpful to understand the different stages in the cycle.  

There are five phases as shown on the illustration below: 

Phase 1: The Trigger 

BANG!  An unknown sound in the middle of the night. The trigger is your initial reaction when an event happens, whether it is an external event or an internal thought.  

Is there a perceived threat? What was that noise! If there is not, then the cycle stops. It is just the cat that knocked the book off the nightstand.  I can go back to sleep. 

If there is, an evaluation is done to determine whether you can handle the situation. Someone is trying to break in my front door.   Oh my god, what do I do!  If you think you can’t handle the situation, then the emotional level begins to increase.  At the same time, your ability to think and reason starts to decline. Maybe I can jump out my bedroom window (even though you are on the 3rd  floor). 

In this phase, as the escalation progresses, your response is 75% psychological and 25% physiological meaning that you are still able to reason as your body begins to prepare itself for a crisis. 

 Phase 2: The Escalation  

Where is my cell? Where can I hide? What can I use as a weapon?! During the escalation phase, your body’s response systems prepare for a crisis.  

Your body prepares to attack or defend itself by pumping adrenaline, cortisol, and other natural chemicals into the blood stream.  This results in the following physical changes: 

  • Breathing becomes rapid 
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase 
  • Muscles tense for action: jaw, neck, shoulders and hands become tight 
  • Voice pitch alters and the volume rises 
  • The pupils of the eyes enlarge 

In this phase, your physiological response increases to 75%, while your psychological response drops to 25%, which means that your ability to think and reason has declined further as your body prepares itself for a crisis. 

Phase 3:  The Crisis 

BANG! They are in the house.  I run to lock the bedroom door.  I push whatever furniture I can against the door.  This phase begins with the “fight or flight” response. 

  • Your body is ready to take action 
  • Oxygen supply has diminished 
  • Quality of judgment has been significantly reduced and decisions are not made with the best reasoning ability 

In the crisis phase you are highly volatile and often make irrational decisions. I open the window and see how far down the drop is.  I get ready to jump.

Phase 4:  The Recovery 

My foot hits something on the floor; it’s my cell! I call 9-1-1.  I scream at the top of my lungs “I’m on the phone with the police!!!”  I hear the intruder running.  I think I hear them run out slamming the front door behind them. 

Once some action has been taken to resolve the crisis phase, your body begins to recover from the extreme stress and loss of energy. 

Unfortunately, hormones do not leave the blood stream all at once. I am crying into the phone, telling the 9-1-1 operator to hurry.  The level of arousal tapers off gradually as adrenaline and cortisol leave the body. 

As normal limits are reached, your quality of judgment returns and reasoning begins to replace the survival response. As you will notice in the illustration the body can escalate once again if the fear / imagined fear is still present. What is that noise? Are they back?  Where are the police? 

Phase 5:  The Post-Crisis 

 The police arrive. I angrily scream at them “What took you so long?  You are so incompetent!”  After the normal physiological limits have been reached, your body enters a short period in which the heart rate slips below normal levels so the body can regain its balance. 

During this phase, awareness and energy returns to your fore brain to allow you to assess what just occurred. I’m safe. I’m really safe… This assessment often leads to feelings of guilt, regret and remorse, such as: Why did I get so mad and say those awful things?  Why did I react that way? Why did I scream at them? 

 I decide I’m moving no matter what.  But this is not the time to be asking for or making commitments, as often there are regrets afterwards. 

This same cycle happens when there are personality or relationship differences.

  1. Trigger – Someone calls you an idiot.
  2. Escalation – You prepare a comeback or retaliation.
  3. Crisis – You call that person incompetent and an argument ensues.
  4. Recovery – As you both become exhausted – You say “Oh and another thing”
  5. Post-Crisis – Both have regrets. “How could we have said those things in front of our colleagues and our Boss.  How stupid of us.

If this cycle happens only occasionally your body may be able to handle it and recover quickly.  However, in extremely stressful times such as a financial crisis, job loss, or a relationship breakup your body cannot endure living in this emotional space.  Changes are needed!  

Next Steps: Let’s talk about how you can help yourself become a better, happier person by stopping the anxiety cycle before it escalates. Click HERE to find out more! 

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