Let-Down Effect – Why Anxiety Can Increase After Stress

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated August 16, 2021

let-down effect anxiety

Have you noticed that you don't feel as anxious when you are under stress as you do after the stress has passed? For instance, when dealing with a stressful situation, you seem to get through it just fine. But after the stressor is over, you notice you become overly anxious about other things, such as symptoms, not getting good sleep, how you feel, or how old core fears seem to resurface?

If you do, you aren't alone. This is another phenomenon we experienced when dealing with anxiety disorder issues and noticed when interacting with Recovery Support members and therapy clients.

This phenomenon is often the cause of rebounds for those who have successfully overcome anxiety disorder and then find themselves struggling again after they've come through a major stressor.

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Here is a common scenario:

Tony struggled with anxiety disorder and the fear of never getting better. After working with a therapist, he overcame his struggle with anxiety disorder, including extinguishing his fear of never getting better (since he got better).

Consequently, he felt free and returned to a normal lifestyle, for which he was very thankful. In fact, he was so thankful that he spent a lot of time helping and encouraging others in their quest to overcome anxiety disorder.

A few years later, Tony encountered a major health concern, which caused major stress as he worked through the uncertainty of what was causing his health problem.

As it turned out, his concern was unfounded, and his medical problem was easily resolved. Immediately after the threat, he felt relief.

However, a few weeks later, and as his body was recovering from the stress, some of his old fears resurfaced, causing him to worry about them again.

This worry led to another increase in stress and symptoms, causing a further increase in worry.

Within a few weeks, he was back in a fight with anxiety disorder and symptoms. This fight rekindled his old fear of never getting better and having to deal with anxiety for the rest of his life.

In addition to his return to anxiety disorder, he was stumped because he knew he overcame that battle once before but found himself right back in it.

This return to a struggle with his old fear surprised him because he was so confident that he would never have to deal with anxiety disorder again.

And because he thought he had dealt with all of his fears the first time, he once again felt trapped in anxiety disorder with no way out.

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So, what happened? Why did Tony return to anxiety disorder after he overcame it the first time? The reasons are twofold:

  1. The after-effects of stress and how it affected his body.
  2. A return to worry.

There are three important things to keep in mind about how stress affects the body:

1. Stress increases activity in the fear center of the brain (amygdala and other areas).[1][2][3]

An increase in fear center activity increases fear detection and reaction. The degree of increased activity is directly proportional to the degree and length of stress.

For more information, see our “Hyperstimulation And Its Effects” and “GABA And Its Role In Anxiety And Hyperstimulation” sections.

2. Increased activity in the fear center of the brain can reactivate old fears.[4]

Increased activity in fear detection and reaction can make old/extinguished fears seem relevant again.

We see this phenomenon time and time again, where a chronic stressor has reactivated old, thought to be extinguished fears.

3. The changes caused by stress can take a long time to reverse, and much longer than most people think.[5][6]

Extended recovery time can make it seem like old, thought to be extinguished fears are back and important again.

This is what happened to Tony:

Tony’s health concern stressed his body. That stress caused an increase in fear center activity (the areas of the brain responsible for fear detection and reaction).

When Tony was focused on his health concern, his increased fear reaction made sense since he thought he might have had a serious medical problem that could have jeopardized his life.

After he found out his life wasn’t in danger, his stress response reactions immediately subsided. But that didn’t mean the activity in the fear center of his brain had time to diminish.

Just because Tony was no longer triggering stress responses because of his health concern didn’t mean his body had time to reverse the changes in the fear center.

While Tony was no longer triggering stress responses, the fear center of his brain was still overly active. And because Tony’s focus was no longer on his medical concern, his heightened fear center was still overly active looking for potential threats.

As such, his symptoms became the threat, and his old fear about anxiety resurfaced, making it seem relevant again.

What did Tony do in response? Worried about it all again.

What does worry do? Creates issues with anxiety and stress.

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What should Tony have done?

  1. Recognized he would feel more anxious immediately after the major stressor had passed.
  2. Regularly practiced stress reduction strategies to recover from the effects of chronic stress.
  3. Recognized it’s common for old fears to resurface after a major stressor, that it would continue until the body has had sufficient time to recover from the effects of chronic stress, and that in time, those old fears would subside as the activity in the fear center diminishes.
  4. Contained his anxiousness and let time pass, realizing that the increase in anxiousness was just a side effect of chronic stress, and it would subside as his body recovered from the negative effects of stress.

We always have to keep in mind that a return to worry will always bring a return to issues with anxiety and stress since worry creates anxiety, and anxiety stresses the body.

Cause and effect: when we worry, we create anxiety, and that anxiety stresses the body.

If Tony had accepted the increase in anxiousness and not worried about the old fears resurfacing, he would have been fine in time.

Fortunately, all Tony had to do to regain his normal non-anxious health was to get back to the basics: containment, stress reduction, rest, passive acceptance, and time.

Just as the cause (worry) and effect (anxiety and stress) create issues with anxiety and stress, so does the cause (faithfully practicing your recovery strategies) and effect (no anxiety and no stress) eliminate issues with anxiety and stress.

KEY POINTS:

  • Stress will increase fear center activity (the areas of the brain responsible for fear detection and reaction).
  • Increased fear detection and reaction will make us feel more anxious.
  • Reducing stress will reduce fear detection and reaction…but in time, and not immediately.
  • Just because you aren’t triggering stress responses doesn’t mean your body has had sufficient time to recover from the effects of chronic stress.
  • Until your body recovers from the effects of chronic stress, contain yourself about the overly reactive fear detection and reaction sensitivity.
  • Let time pass.

Here again, understanding anxiety and stress and containing worry are keys to lasting success.

Instead of creating a negative cause (anxiety) and effect (stress and its symptoms), we want to create a positive cause (containment) and effect (normal stress and no symptoms). Whichever we spend more time engaging in will produce the result we get.

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So, next time you experience a stressful situation or circumstance, do your best to manage your stress during the stressful experience AND recognize you could feel more anxious afterward due to the after-effects of stress.

By containing anxiousness, reducing stress, and giving your body time, you will feel normal again…in time.

Faithfully practicing your recovery strategies will lead to success every time! You just have to be patient as the body recovers from the effects of chronic stress.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our Anxiety Articles page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including The Let-Down Effect - Why We Can Have An Increase In Anxiety After Stress.

References

  1. Zhang, Xin, et al. "Stress-Induced Functional Alterations in Amygdala: Implications for Neuropsychiatric Diseases." Frontiers In Neuroscience, 29 May 2018.
  1. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. "The impact of stress on body function: A review." EXCLI Journal Experimental and Clinical Studies, 21 July 2017.
  1. Ressler, Kerry J. "Amygdala Activity, Fear, and Anxiety: Modulation by Stress." Biological Psychiatry, 15 June 2011.
  1. University of Texas at Austin. "Stress heightens fear of threats from the past." ScienceDaily, 7 August 2017.
  1. LAURAN NEERGAARD. “Brain Protein May Lead to Stress Treatment, Study Says.” Seattlepi.com, Associated Press, 1 Apr. 2011.
  1. Neergaard, Lauran. “Studies show even short periods of stress take toll on brain cells, a clue to post-traumatic stress disorder.” Associated Press Medical Writer, 17 Jan. 2002.