Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Feedback Loops

A chronically hostile person, assuming everyone is out to get him, treats people meanly. He is defensive. He cuts people down before they have a chance to cut him down. This makes people resent him and act hostile in return, which reinforces his belief that everyone is out to get him. This makes him even more likely to be hostile in the future. Chronic hostility and peoples' response to it produce a self-feeding loop.

Stress hormones are especially vulnerable to feedback loops because they cause physical sensations. Those physical sensations are fed to the brain and alter thoughts and perception. Those thoughts and perceptions stimulate your glands to secrete even more stress hormones, etc.

Panic attacks, for instance, happen this way: Some thought or event triggers a burst of adrenaline, which naturally shows up as sweaty palms, pounding heart, etc. Johnny notices his pounding heart and thinks, "What if this is a heart attack?" This possibility scares him. His adrenal glands dump even more stress hormones into his bloodstream, which cause his heart to pound even more, which scares him even more, and so on.

Later, when he thinks about what happened, it frightens him. Johnny starts worrying it will happen again. This anxiety, of course, raises his baseline adrenaline level, making him more likely to have another panic attack.

A panic attack is a feedback loop. And you will notice that the things that trigger a panic attack are only those things from which a loop can develop — heartbeat, breathing, feeling dizzy, etc. You will never find someone having a panic attack about knee pain.

It gets worse. If he has a panic attack driving, Johnny may begin to fear driving. His nervousness when he gets into the car again means he's got extra adrenaline in his bloodstream, which may trigger another panic attack as adrenaline causes physical sensations that are then fed to the brain and alter thoughts and perceptions, which then increase his adrenaline output. Do this a few more times and poor Johnny may develop a phobia of driving. If it occurs at the top of a building, he may develop a phobia of heights. And so on.

One of the effective things a therapist might do for Johnny is to reassure him that although adrenaline may cause his heart to pound, it won't give him a heart attack. Another thing a therapist might do is teach him to relax at will with breathing exercises or Progressive Relaxation training or meditation.

The reassurance and the control over his own state of tension breaks the loop. The anxiety stops feeding back on itself. It stops making itself worse.

Panic attacks are an extreme example of the kinds of things that can occur whenever adrenaline is involved. You have a worrisome thought. It creates a mild feeling of fear and some muscle tension. This fear and tension tend to make you think more about things you're afraid of, or puts a more anxious spin on what you remember the boss said to you this morning. This increases your adrenaline output even more, etc.

You can break your own self-feeding loop for your everyday anxiety using the same techniques on yourself that therapists use on their clients: Reassure yourself and learn to control your own level of relaxation.

Why did I tell you all this? Simply because one method that effectively reduces anxiety is understanding more about how stress hormones work. Ignorance is not bliss. Information can make a huge difference. For example, at one time nobody knew germs existed. You can't see them and microscopes hadn't been invented yet. So doctors didn't wash their hands. They didn't disinfect their instruments. Thousands of people died because of their lack of understanding.

With an understanding of how a self-feeding loop works, you can make up your own methods. Any particular method isn't that important when you understand how things work. Once doctors knew about germs, they quickly invented and are still inventing methods for dealing with it. Until germs were discovered, however, the methods might have been worthless. If they were merely taught the methods without being given the understanding, the doctors might have applied the method of washing their hands, for example, and then dried them on a dirty towel.

I have heard of an educational program that was tried in the Philippines. There was an ongoing health problem caused by bacteria in their drinking water. Although some places in China had the same germ in their water, they had no health problem because the Chinese drank tea. They boiled their water before they drank it.

So the government went on a campaign to educate people on the use of boiling water for drinking. They taught the population a method without giving understanding. The program didn't have the result they wanted because people would boil water and then take a few teaspoons of the water, like medicine. Other than that, they drank unboiled water!

It's like the story in Sports Illustrated. Ronald Bradley went to prison for breaking and entering. He wore gloves during his crimes, but he wore golf gloves — the kind that left his fingertips bare — making it very easy to identify him by his fingerprints. Bradley had applied the method without understanding.

Understanding makes a difference. When you are feeling anxious, and it seems your anxiety is getting out of hand, one method is to simply read this article. Shed some light on your situation. That, all by itself, can give you some relief.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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