What Is An Anxiety Spiral?

Scientists understand more about anxiety today than ever before. Learn about what happens in the brain when anxiety starts spiralling.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
anxiety spiral
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

With some population-based surveys suggesting that more than 33% of the world’s population may experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, it’s worth considering whether anxiety is not an abnormal experience but rather a common feature of modern life. Whether it’s panic disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, phobias or PTSD, dealing with anxiety can feel like a lonely, confusing battle against an elusive enemy. Fortunately, research into both the physiological and psychological causes of anxiety is flourishing, and scientists understand more about anxiety today than ever before. Let’s consider some of the hard facts about how anxiety takes hold over body and mind, i.e. the “anxiety spiral”, and what you can do about it.

Understanding The Nature Of An Anxiety Spiral

For those who feel like worry ties their brains into knots, it can be a surprisingly tricky question to answer: why do people worry? What is actually happening in the brain when a vague concern escalates into a full-blown panic attack?

Therapists, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have all suggested various theoretical models to understand the process of anxiety as well as the parts of the body that are involved as anxiety spirals out of control. “Biopsychosocial” models attempt to explain the problem holistically and show how the anxiety story plays out simultaneously across our bodies, minds and even rippling out into our social behavior. These models are constantly being refined, but they have much in common. One thing that seems to characterize anxiety across the board is the presence of reinforcing feedback loops that escalate anxiety rather than diffuse it.

The anxiety spiral begins with stressful life events, long-term worries or even unpleasant physical situations or illness. The anxiety-prone mind may disproportionately focus on these thoughts, misinterpreting them as real danger rather than what they are – mere thoughts. For those who experience panic attacks, conscious attention may be zoomed in on certain physical sensations and amplified, for example a beating heart, butterflies in the stomach or sweaty palms will suddenly draw attention and cause further panic. 

This is because these abstract thoughts are being converted into literal, physical events in the body via the hormonal system. Responding to the thoughts as though they were real, imminent danger, the brain alerts the body’s glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, which activate the sympathetic nervous system and result in a range of bodily sensations.

Read more: Learn about the effects of visualization for anxiety.

And here’s where the anxiety spiral can grab a hold and reinforce itself. Being hyper-aware of these sensations, despite no actual danger being present, the body and mind may begin to panic about the sensations themselves. Physiologically, this is called a state of hyperarousal, but mentally it can feel like an increasing sense of dread, quickly getting out of hand. The fight-or-flight response would ordinarily cause someone to take self-preserving action in the face of a threat, but with worry and anxiety, there is no threat, and nowhere to run. So, in essence, the sensations themselves become a trigger for further panic.

On Insight Timer, we offer hundreds of free guided meditations for anxiety that help to focus on staying in the present moment and seeing a situation for what it is.

Being Consumed By The Spiral Can Happen Quickly

More hormones are then released, accompanied by catastrophic thinking that tries to frame and explain intellectually what can feel like the end of the world. The sensations feed back into the spiral, amplifying themselves, and in some cases, even leading to a panic attack. What begins as thought is interpreted by the brain, which sends messages to the physical body, which responds biologically and in ways that confirm and compound the original anxious thoughts. 

A “break point” like a panic attack can bring some relief, but the cycle can still continue in the long-term, because the body and mind have now strengthened the false belief that certain thoughts, feelings and sensations are to be feared. In the case of social anxiety or phobias, a person might deliberately alter their social behavior in response to this spiral, for example avoiding the people, situations or places that have triggered anxiety in the past. So, rather than exposing themselves to stimuli that may challenge their existing models, people behave in ways that further reinforce the very mechanisms of their anxiety.

What Happens In The Anxious Brain

The anxiety response is a marvelous system that’s been fine tuned by evolution over millions of years, and when it’s running as it should, helps us survive in the face of danger. However, poorer cognitive control, a tendency to internalize psychological sensations, genetic predispositions and arguably the stress of modern life all conspire to disrupt this system, causing it to spiral out of control. At the root of it all: maladaptive thoughts.

Anxiety could be said to start in the amygdala, a region of the temporal lobe of the brain that plays a key role in our perception of our emotions, primarily the detection of fear. The amygdala is like a thermostat that controls the degree of perceptive awareness we have for inner sensations. The amygdala is all about survival – it stores emotional memories of learnt reactions to past events, so that it can recognize and respond to those events properly in future.

Depending on the state of emotional arousal in the amygdala, it will initiate the fight-or-flight response, either enhancing or down-regulating the body’s response to perceived fear via stress hormones like adrenaline. This is achieved on the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenals), a network linking the brain and the stress glands, and explains why anxiety is a holistic affair, affecting not just the mind but every part of the body.

The circuit that dampens the stress response is in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and is concerned with logical and rational thought, decision making and the formation of new memories. Activating this region of the brain tempers anxiety and halts the spiral. The circuit that recruits the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex will have the opposite effect, however, magnifying awareness of negative information and ramping up anxiety. 

Oliver Robinson of University College London believes that in those with anxiety disorders, it’s as if this anxiety circuit is permanently switched on. Genetic predisposition (scientists have now identified nine sections of the human genome that seem to correlate with neuroticism), learned behavior, gender and past experience all influence whether a person is at risk for developing anxiety. Anxiety sufferers have also been shown to have abnormal levels of the neurotransmitter GABA. Thankfully, there are now effective ways to treat and manage anxiety.

Dismantling The Anxiety Spiral

Cognitive behavioral therapy is an approach that helps people tackle the thoughts that trigger the anxiety spiral, allowing them to defuse anxious rumination before it ripples through the body’s hormonal system. Finally, exercise and a diet that nurtures healthy gut bacteria have also been shown to soothe an over-alert stress response and aid in emotional self-regulation. Certain medications like SSRIS and benzodiazepines (such as Valium) can also act as a chemical fuse that stops the hormonal cascade that sets off the spiral.

These evidence-based guided meditations can help to reset your spiralling mind when anxiety arises:

  1. Courage To Face Your Fears Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
  2. Working With Anxiety Judson Brewer
  3. Anxiety Relief Meditation Dr Jeremy Alford
  4. Decrease Anxiety & Increase Peace Andrea Wachter
  5. Befriending Anxiety Willa Blythe Miller
  6. Breaking Negative Thought Loops Jen Knox
  7. For When You’re Overwhelmed By Anxiety Dr. Sarah Cavrak

Explore our free collection of MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) meditations.

New research is being done constantly, and scientists are slowly gaining a picture of anxiety that encompasses the psychological, cultural, mental and physiological – for example there’s now some suggestion that the amygdala is not the only key brain region, and that a tiny area called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis may play a key role in hypervigilance. On the psychological side, many therapists have found value in mindfulness-based techniques or in essentially inverting the anxiety spiral to create a “mindfulness spiral” – one that uses the body’s inbuilt mechanisms to focus on and amplify more adaptive responses to anxiety.

Those experiencing anxiety can sometimes feel desperately out of control of their own minds, with fear feeding more fear, and thoughts twisting out of proportion and racing so quickly it’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s imagined. But taking a look at the hard facts of the brain science behind anxiety can be strangely calming. With a greater understanding of exactly what the body and mind is experiencing, it’s possible to take a deep breath, step back and recalibrate in healthier, more adaptive ways.

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