“All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced debilitating anxiety. But we’ve also overcome it and returned to normal and lasting health. Because we know the hardship anxiety unwellness can cause, we are committed to helping others, with over 30 years of service.” - Jim Folk, President, anxietycentre.com

The Anxiety Mechanism

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: September 5, 2019


anxiety mechanism image

Many people struggle with anxiety disorder because they don’t understand the mechanism that drives issues with anxiety. Consequently, some people believe because anxiety feels outside of their control, there’s not much they can do to stop it. This leads them to believe anxiety is dangerous, and therefore, something to be feared.

Unfortunately, fearing anxiety fuels the very feelings and symptoms of anxiety they are afraid of. This fear can set up a vicious cycle where anxiety has caused feelings and symptoms, their fear of anxiety’s feelings and symptoms creates more anxiety, more anxiety creates more feelings and symptoms, and so on.


fear of the feelings and symptoms of anxiety image

Fortunately, anxiety and its feelings and symptoms are within our control. In fact, we have great control over anxiety, which is what sets us free from anxiety disorder.

While we explain all of this in great detail in the Recovery Support area of our website, we thought we’d provide a brief overview for those who visit only our public pages. So, let’s begin:

Behavior

Behavior is defined as: the way in which one acts or conducts oneself.[1]

In other words, behavior is: the combination of thoughts and actions.

Thoughts are the “internal dialogue” we have with ourselves. Thoughts are made up of words and sentences.

We can have both conscious thoughts – those internal words and sentences we are aware of – and subconscious thoughts – those internal words and sentences we aren’t aware of.

Conscious is defined as: perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation.[2]

Subconscious is defined as: the part of your mind that notices and remembers information when you are not actively trying to do so, and influences your behaviour even though you do not realize it.[3]

Conscious thoughts become subconscious through repetition and reinforcement. The more times we say them to ourselves, the more automatic those messages become.[4]

Habits form through repetition and reinforcement.[5]

Thoughts can become habituated (formed as a habit) the more we use them. For instance, we can think the same types of thoughts so often that they become automatic and seemingly instinctual.

As an example, musicians can practice their craft so much that the execution of a certain piece is automatic – performed without deliberately thinking of every mechanical action.

Thoughts can become similar – we can think them so often they occur without conscious effort.

Thoughts Precede Action

Thoughts precede action.[6] When we first think something and then decide to act, the action follows.

stress response image

Both conscious and subconscious thoughts drive actions. That means there will be times when we knowingly decide to do something and then do it, and times when we just do something and not be aware of the thought process that preceded it.

Nevertheless, thoughts (conscious and subconscious) precede action.

Just as thoughts can become habituated and seemingly automatic, so, too, can the combination of thoughts and actions (behavior) become habituated and seemingly automatic.[5]

Driving is a good example of behavior that becomes automatic. Many of us have driven so much that our awareness and reactions are subconscious. Many times I (Jim Folk) have driven some place and wasn’t consciously aware of making every driving action throughout the trip because I was consciously thinking of something else.

Research shows that we can perform conscious and subconscious tasks at the same time because the brain can do both simultaneously.[4]

Consequently, thoughts precede actions, even though it might seem like the action occurred without prior thoughts.

Thoughts Cause Immediate Biological Changes

The mind/body connection is tight and fast.[7]

The body immediately responds to what the mind thinks.

For instance, with anxiety, the moment we think we are in danger, the body responds as if it actually is in danger.[8] And, EVERY TIME!

That’s because the stress response is the body’s automatic survival mechanism that engages every time we think we are in danger.[9] The degree of stress response is proportional to the degree of perceived threat.

stress response image

Visit our “Stress Response” article for all of the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about in an effort to protect us from harm.

The stress response is hardwired into the body. Everyone has one, and it works the same way for everyone.[10]

The moment we think something is dangerous (or has the potential to be dangerous) the stress response engages. EVERY TIME!

The perception of mild danger produces a mild stress response. It can be so mild, we don’t feel it.

The perception of grave danger, however, produces a dramatic stress response. We feel dramatic stress responses because of the profound changes dramatic stress responses produce. Anxiety and panic attacks are examples of the strong feelings associated with a dramatic stress response.

Thoughts cause immediate biological changes EVERY TIME because the body responds to what the mind thinks EVERY TIME!

Apprehensive behavior

We think all kinds of thoughts. The types of thoughts we think produce corresponding types of reactions.

For instance, if we think something is funny, we’ll laugh. If we think something is sad, we’ll experience sadness. If we think something is exciting, we’ll become excited, and so on.

Again, each type of thought we think produces a corresponding type of reaction.

Regarding anxiety, the moment we think we could be in danger, we experience fear. Fear creates the state of anxiety.

For more information, visit our “What Causes Anxiety?” or our “Anxiety 101” articles.

Thinking that you are in danger creates anxiety. Thinking that you are in danger is an example of apprehensive behavior.

Apprehensive behavior can be defined as: fearful that something bad, unpleasant, or harmful might happen.

Worry is another example of apprehensive behavior because worry is imagining that something bad, unpleasant, or harmful MIGHT happen.

Stress Responses Stress The Body

As previously mentioned, the moment we think we could be in danger (apprehensive behavior), the body produces a corresponding stress response, and one that is proportional to the degree of perceive danger.

Because of the many physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about, stress responses stress the body.[8][9][10]

A body that’s under stress will produce sensations and symptoms of that stress.[10][11]

Again, visit our “Stress Response” article for more detailed information.

When the body becomes chronically stressed, it can become hyperstimulated, since stress hormones are stimulants.

Hyperstimulation can cause all of the same sensations and symptoms as an active stress response even though the body hasn’t experienced an active stress response.

Visit our “Stress-Response Hyperstimulation” article for more detailed information about hyperstimulation and the many ways it can affect the body.

Anxiety Symptoms Are Symptoms Of Stress

Anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress. We call them anxiety symptoms because anxious behavior is the main source of the stress that causes the body to become stressed and symptomatic.

We can have both acute anxiety symptoms – those caused by an active stress response – and chronic anxiety symptoms – those caused by chronic stress (hyperstimulation).

In either case, anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress.

Anxiety Mechanism Summary

Based on the above brief overview, the anxiety mechanism can be summarized as:

  1. Apprehensive behavior (anxious thoughts and actions) creates anxiety.
  2. Anxiety activates the stress response.
  3. The stress response stresses the body.
  4. A body that’s under stress can exhibit symptoms.

Based on this summary, the anxiety symptom mechanism can be illustrated as:


anxiety stress symptom mechanism image

The easiest way to stop anxiety symptoms is to stop the apprehensive behavior that activates the anxiety symptom mechanism. Then, give the body sufficient time to recover.

Because we CAN stop the anxiety mechanism, there isn’t any reason to be afraid of anxiety or its feelings and symptoms. Putting yourself in control of the anxiety symptom mechanism removes the threat that it’s uncontrollable. Removing the threat removes the fear. Removing the fear eliminates anxiety.

The above summarizes the anxiety mechanism. Because it is the same mechanism for everyone, everyone has the ability and opportunity to use it to overcome anxiety disorder.

We’ll explain more about that in our next article, "Anxiety Starts And Ends In The Mind".


The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.


Additional Resources:


Return to Anxiety Articles section.


REFERENCES:

1. Dictionary.com

2. “Conscious.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 5 Sept. 2019.

3. “SUBCONSCIOUS: Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary, 5 Sept. 2019.

4. staff, Science X. “The Pilot and Autopilot within Our Mind-Brain Connection: Conscious vs. Unconscious, Habit vs. Non-Habit Examined.” Medical Xpress - Medical Research Advances and Health News, Medical Xpress, 11 Jan. 2013.

5. Carden, Lucas & Wood, Wendy. (2018). "Habit Formation and Change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences." 20. 117-122. 10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.12.009.

6. Wood, Wendy, et al. "Habits in Everyday Life: Thought, Emotion, and Action." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, Vol. 83, No. 6, 1281 - 1297.

7. St. Marie, Raymond & Telebkhah, Kellie. "Neurological Evidence of a Mind-Body Connection: Mindfulness and Pain Control." The American Journal of Psychiatry, 1 Apr. 2018.

8. Godoy, Livea, et al. "A Comprehensive Overview on Stress Neurobiology: Basic Concepts and Clinical Implications." Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience, 3, July 2018.

9. Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.

10. Weston, Trevor. "The Nervous System." Know Your Body: The Atlas of Anatomy. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses, 1999. N. pag. Print.

11. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, 2017.