The Anxiety Cycle

A rough-and-ready way to define anxiety is to say that when I am anxious I am unsuccessfully struggling to prevent something bad happening. It is important to add the word ‘unsuccessfully’ because if I was able to successfully struggle against the thing that I am afraid of happening then this would not be anxiety at all. The whole thing about anxiety is the horrible feeling we have that we are constantly fighting a losing battle – the feeling that we are not able to ‘keep everything under control’ even though we are trying as hard as we can to do so.

This definition still isn’t quite right though: it would be better to put it as follows:

Anxiety is when we are unsuccessfully (or ineffectively) struggling to prevent a feared outcome, whilst still hanging on to the desperate hope that we might be able to prevent that outcome.

This reformulation sums up the particular ‘half-way house’ nature of anxiety – it is not the whole story to simply say that I am ‘unsuccessfully struggling’ because if this were the case then I would soon see very clearly that I am being unsuccessful, and so I would stop struggling. I would ‘give up the fight’. This would then also be the end of the anxiety! There’s no anxiety without struggling. We don’t ‘give up the fight’ in anxiety, however: the whole thing about anxiety is that I have a kind of ‘doomed feeling’ about what I am doing (i.e. I have the feeling deep down that I am bound to fail), but rather than acknowledge this knowledge fully to myself, I carry on in the desperate attempt to succeed. In this way I manage to distract myself from facing up to the true nature of my predicament, which is something that I find too frightening to deal with.

What we are talking about here, therefore, is a kind of ‘unconscious self-deception’. Anxiety comes about, we might say, because of the existence of an ‘unconscious mechanism of self-deception’ (or ‘self-distraction’) which we can explain by saying that it is not fixing the problem that is important (even though we think it is) but preventing ourselves from seeing that we can’t fix the problem.

So even though I cannot succeed in the task of ‘preventing the bad thing from happening’, I can succeed in preventing myself from seeing that I do not stand a chance of preventing the ‘bad thing’ from happening. This is a curious state of affairs – even though I ‘fail’ on one level, I succeed on another, hidden level, and yet this ‘success’ is no good at all because what I am succeeding at (or trying to succeed at) is self-deception! In anxiety therefore, as in so many things, the problem is that I am my own worst enemy. I am trying to ‘cling onto the hope of being a successful controller’ but by doing this I am creating a huge amount of suffering for myself. If I could give up this struggle (the struggle to hang onto the belief that I can control) then there would be no anxiety but for whatever reason this belief is of paramount importance to me…


We can make this whole idea clearer by saying that what happens in anxiety is that I substitute ‘fear of fear’ for fear itself. After I make the exchange I no longer have the original fear, but instead I have to contend with anxiety, which (for reasons that we shall shortly see) is not the same thing as straightforward fear at all. But why would I want to make this ‘exchange’ – what is the advantage to me? Why is anxiety preferable to fear? One answer is to say that with fear there is usually the option of doing something to get away from it. I can usually manage hide from the fear, or run away from it. We’re all hiding out from fear, but the thing is we don’t know because we are hiding out successfully! We’re running away successfully! When for whatever reason we find that there is nowhere left to hide from the fear, that we can’t successfully run away from it any more, then we have to devise a new strategy, if we are not to be left face-to-face with it. I can’t run away anymore in the way that I usually do by distracting myself with everyday occupations (much as I would like to) so I have to come up with something else. What I do therefore is utilize a strategy to distract myself from the utter powerlessness (or helplessness) that I feel in the face of fear by ‘trying to get out of it’, by desperately attempting to establish control. As we have said, this isn’t because I genuinely believe that ‘control is a real option’, but because the struggle to control momentarily distracts me from the full impact of the awareness that I am ‘powerless in the face of fear’.

What is happening in anxiety therefore is that I am reacting to my fear with ‘fear-of-fear’. This means that rather than look fear in the face, I keep on trying – by whatever means – to convince myself that ‘everything will be okay’. I start struggling against the absolute lack of security inherent in the fear by making up my own security. I try to create a feeling of security with my own actions, my own thinking processes. This isn’t a very effective strategy however (in fact it is totally flawed) because the more energy I put into positively reassuring myself the more this feeds into the underlying fear, so that as I allow myself to hope (however tenuously) that everything will be OK, I create a new level of fear associated with the awareness (which I will always have on some level) that I am only fooling myself. This sort of thing always happens with denial. It inevitably happens with denial – in order to create the hope that I will be able to get out of the fear I have to ignore (however briefly) the underlying fear, but by ignoring it I put energy into it. Denying fear feeds fear, as we all know, and so it is going to pop up again with even more force than before. This is why we say that denial (or ‘distraction’) is a ‘flawed strategy’. We use distraction a lot in life but it makes things worse rather than better – engaging in a ‘fight against fear’ gives me temporary relief, but at the price of a back-lash which is inevitably going to occur later on.


As we have said, as soon as I start reacting to my fear by ‘fighting against it’ I put myself in line for a backlash, which means that I automatically end up being caught up in an anxiety cycle. Anxiety has two self-cancelling phases to it: Phase [1] is hope. This happens when I start to believe (or at least partially believe) in my positive (self-reassuring) thinking; I start to let myself believe that there is a ‘way out’, and I struggle towards this, trying as best I can to latch on to the fragment of security that I have temporarily created for myself, clinging as best I can to the belief that everything will work out all right for me.

Then comes Phase [2] which is despair. During this part of the cycle I find myself suspecting that everything is actually not going to be okay after all, and I start to get a glimpse of the fact that I have only been fooling myself, which is of course an awareness that is extremely unwelcome to me. This unwelcome insight is usually called ‘negative thinking’ and it is simply a reversal of the ‘positive thinking’ which came before it. In actual fact I created this ‘negative thinking’ for myself by the act of deliberately slanting reality in a positive way – the negative slant is an unavoidable consequence of the positive slant that I took earlier. As soon as I assert YES I create the spectre of NO which will inevitably rebound on me at a future date. The more I invest in hope the more I invest in the ‘polar reversal’ that is waiting in the wings for its turn to appear.


A good way to illustrate this principle is by thinking of a heavy weight hanging on a string – if I object to this weight and give it a push it goes away, but as soon as it reaches its maximum displacement in a positive direction, it turns around and starts to come back. The rebound principle means that the positive displacement is exactly counterbalanced by an equal and opposite negative displacement, i.e. the harder I push the unwanted object away, the harder it will come back to me a bit later on. ‘Action and reaction are equal and opposite’, as Newton’s law of mechanics says.

Of course when this happens I will react by pushing it away again, and so then I get caught up in an ongoing cycle of futile activity – activity which serves no purpose other than to totally preoccupy myself. My ‘overt’ goal is to prevent the unwanted thing from happening (i.e. to maintain control), but my ‘covert’ goal is to prevent myself from seeing that I am not in control, which I manage by engrossing myself 100% in this business of ‘pushing the pendulum away’ every time it swings back.

The fact that I am so thoroughly preoccupied in anxiety makes it very hard for me to see what I am actually doing! What happens is that by getting so engaged with the ‘anxious occupation’ of pushing the pendulum away every time it comes back I loose all perspective on what is going on and so I don’t see that my own pushing is rebounding on me. I can’t connect the positive, security-seeking thinking with the painful backlash of despair. I have the experience of being anxious (and maybe I am also able to understand to a limited extent the idea behind the example of the pendulum) but what is the connection between the two?  If I saw very clearly that I was creating the anxiety I would of course stop, but the lack of perspective created by the anxious activity means that I just can’t see this. This is a loop therefore – fighting against the fear keeps me busy the whole time, which I want because it distracts me from my situation, but being busy the whole time means I have no perspective and so I am very effectively trapped in the cycle.


We indicated earlier in this discussion that in anxiety ‘pushing the weight away’ corresponds to ‘refusing to face the fear that there is nothing I can do to prevent the bad thing happening’. Because of my refusal to see that I am ‘not in control’, I go into the ‘hopefully struggling’ phase where I am working at convincing myself that everything will be okay. During this stage I put all my energy into positive thinking, and I do not allow myself to entertain any doubts.

Then comes the reverse-swing phase when my repressed doubts come back at me with overwhelming force, and during this reverse phase I find myself taken over with negative thinking, which also totally preoccupies me. At no time do I connect the negative with the positive and see that it was my insistence on seeing things in a positive or hopeful way that created the backlash which is where I can’t help seeing things in a negative or despairing way. I can’t see that it is my ‘straining for the positive’ that is snapping back on me every time like a rubber band that is continually being stretched to its limit and then painfully pings back at me. The painful ‘pinging’ then makes me react again (by stretching the elastic band again) and so I’m caught in the cycle.

The rapidity of the POSITIVE/NEGATIVE cycle can vary greatly: sometimes it is fast and frantic and sometimes it may be delayed so much that during the positive phase I do not even know that I am anxious. For example, I may be able to clamp down on my doubts and worries during the day and give the impression to both myself and others that I am confident and in control, only to be wracked by fears during the night when I no longer have the energy to hold back the reverse swing phase any longer. This day-time / night-time anxiety cycle is a pretty familiar story – I chase away fears during the day, and they come back to hound me at night, and just so long as I am unwilling to look at these fears in the eye I will remain indefinitely subject to this pattern. Facing my fear does not mean fighting it! Fighting only prolongs the pain – in fact it indefinitely extends it.


Once the idea of the PLUS / MINUS cycle is thoroughly understood it seems so simple. It raises the question of why anyone would want to make the exchange; why we would want to swap fear for anxiety, given that anxiety makes us go around in circles for ever without ever getting us anywhere. After all, no matter how long I spend in anxiety I don’t ever solve anything – the original fear is still there waiting for me the whole time, and so what is the point of taking the excursion into false hope? We have already given one answer to this question, which is that we involve ourselves in anxiety because of our refusal to face our original fear. Another way of saying the same thing is by thinking in terms of short-termism.

Short-termism means that when it comes right down to it all I want to do is escape from the fear and I don’t care what it takes to achieve this. I will pay any price for a quick exit, even if that price is being stuck in the ‘false escaping’ of anxiety forever. So in anxiety I exchange fear (which I know I can’t escape from) in favour of a situation where I am able to keep on believing (for brief periods of time) that I can escape…

This means therefore that anxiety is our attempt to ‘postpone the inevitable’, even though the only way we can do this is by removing ourselves from reality, and therefore away from the possibility of any real or genuine resolution to the situation. What we are talking about here is blind (i.e. wilfully ignorant) motivation – the type of motivation that only looks as far as the immediate short-term gain, and this comes down (as we suggested earlier) to a willingness to resort to self-deception (i.e. self-distraction) as a way of sorting out our problems.

This type of ‘unreflective’ motivation means that we resort to short-term gain (no matter how brief, no matter how fleeting) even though the cost is getting trapped in the vibration, getting trapped in the endless oscillation between [+] and [-], hope and despair.

If we understand this then we understand anxiety, and understanding anxiety is really the same things as being free from anxiety, since – as we have been saying – the whole point of the type of mental activity known as anxiety is lost once we ‘see through it’.

There is no way that this can’t be the case –  if anxiety is all about trying for the sake of distracting ourselves from the fear of what might happen (or what we think might happen) if we don’t try, then when we see this then the momentum starts to go out of the activity. The problem is that we try to achieve everything via purposeful doing, and when ongoing denial (or the ongoing habit of denial) purposeful doing is not the answer. Yet more doing (yet more straining and striving and struggling) is not going to help – it might seem ‘positive’ on the face of it but because it is fuelled by the energy of denial, the energy of ‘running away from fear’ it really is nothing else but the fear. Our purposeful activity is fear, and so there is no way this is going to get us out of the situation we’re in. As Alan Watts says in The Wisdom of Insecurity,

To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know that you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain.

Image credit – ouroboros_fish_by_staraphilion