Anxiety and The Fear Avalanche

“We often use our active imaginations in the service of fear. We think of possibilities that another person would never imagine. We expect traffic jams, terminal illnesses, and potentially embarrassing moments because we are in the habit of scaring ourselves… A fear avalanche is a chain of frightening thoughts or expectations, each built on the previous imagined event. Like an avalanche, it picks up power and speed as it progresses …

… A fear avalanche interferes with the natural recovery cycle [of an experience of anxiousness]. Without this “second scare”, the body naturally winds down from the physiological effect of surplus adrenalin. The cascade of fear thoughts prolongs and intensifies the panic reaction. But many people are convinced that their fearful thoughts somehow protect them. They believe that if they stop thinking of what they fear…the worst possibility would catch them unprepared … It is sensible to assess a situation and take realistic precautions. But worry is not preparation. It gives the illusion that you are preparing yourself when, in fact, the only thing fear thoughts prepare you for is panic.”

Feniger, M. (1997). Pp. 111-113, Journey from anxiety to freedom. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Pub.

 

Three important takeaways from this excerpt are:

  • Many people are convinced that their fearful thoughts somehow protect them;
  • Worry is not preparation;
  • The only thing fear thoughts prepare you for is panic.

Many people experience anxiety and panic. Sometimes panic arises seemingly ‘out of the blue’, but usually it develops gradually as a result of a situation that is legitimately worrying at the time, but is perhaps no longer an immediate concern. Prolonged worry can become a habit, and habitual fear thoughts can trigger acute physiological problems.

It is worth remembering that if you have an existing physical weakness (for example, gastrointestinal issues or a tendency to migraines), it’s often the case that a heightened anxious state can cause physical symptoms to manifest within the weakened system.

Despite how common anxiety conditions are, we have a big problem in our society with discussing them. To be anxious is to show vulnerability, and many of us have been taught from a young age that to be vulnerable is to be weak. Mental toughness is prized, and the ability to “suck it up” is encouraged. We have no problem seeking help when we break our leg, or catch a bug, but we seem to have a big problem seeking help when our mind becomes unwell – somehow it seems so much more damning and personal to acknowledge that we’re struggling with our emotions or our mind.

To that end, it might be helpful to consider letting go of the idea that there’s a separation between our body and our mind, and begin to consider that we have a “bodymind”. Our physical and mental/emotional balance are equally important.

In the case of panic attacks, as unpleasant and sometimes terrifying as they are, they are a helpful signal from your body that things are not as they should be. The human organism seeks always to maintain homeostasis – balance. In the same way that your physical body manifests a fever to counteract a physical infection, a panic attack is a sympathetic response of your autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic response involves a release of stress hormones (adrenalin, etc), and results in the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. Sometimes it is called the ‘fight or flight’ response, and it is a natural consequence of your central nervous system responding to stimuli.

In the normal course of events the body naturally winds down after the burst of adrenalin and anxiousness brought on by the sympathetic response, by triggering the parasympathetic response. Again, this is a natural response of the autonomic nervous system, and is when calming hormones are released into our system, serving to dissipate the effects of the stress hormones. The problem is that the panic response can be prolonged and made habitual (chronic), especially if we do not give attention to how we think about what has happened, and practise new ways of attending to our fear thoughts and our worry.

The key is “practise”: practise new ways of thinking and practise noticing our fear thoughts and mindfully changing them as we witness them. There are limitations to our logical thinking in trying to resolve issues of anxiety as the origin of the problem lies in our unconscious responses. By using techniques that help us to directly influence the elements of our anxiety that are unconscious we can create change to our responses. We can find resolution to our problems of mind. Mindfully formulating and practising new habits of thinking will normalise new, more healthful and helpful patterns, and will equip us well for our future.