Understanding the different phases of anxiety
In a recent blog article, we explored the experience of anxiety and the vicious cycle of fear-based thoughts, emotions, body reactions, and behaviours that feed into anxiety and keep us trapped (read previous post here). This is one important part of understanding anxiety better, but have you ever noticed that sometimes we can be distanced from the perceived threat, and we still feel really anxious and fearful? Understanding the phases of anxiety helps to explain what happens in the body and mind once the trigger to the anxiety has passed.
Jump to read more about each of the three phases of anxiety:
What are the phases of anxiety?
Phase 1: The anxiety episode
This involves the intense surge of adrenaline which produces the body and mind symptoms of anxiety. This is when we feel physical sensations such as dizziness or light-headedness, heart palpitations, sweating, shakiness, butterflies in the tummy, and difficulty breathing. Psychological experiences during the anxiety episode include fear-based thoughts, predicting negative outcomes, overwhelming emotions such as fear, and sometimes a sense of separation from reality.
Research suggests that this acute phase of anxiety can only be sustained by the body for between 3 to 10 minutes. Even though we might continue to feel terrified and frightened, the most intense experience of anxiety is actually time limited.
When we experience anxiety, we develop ways of coping with the body and mind symptoms. Some common ways of dealing with anxiety include negative self-talk (“I’m no good, I shouldn’t be feeling this way… I can’t cope with this”), avoidance (avoiding places, people, or situations), social isolation (withdrawing from friends or family), and substance use (turning to drugs or alcohol). These coping responses make sense and are understandable but can bring unintended consequences to us. The anxiety episode will pass sooner if we learn to respond to the body and mind symptoms in ways that are helpful to us.
Phase 2: Aftermath anxiety
These are the responses that follow the acute phase of anxiety when we reflect back on the anxiety episode and think about the symptoms we experienced. We might have worry thoughts such as “I thought something terrible was about to happen to me… my heart was beating too fast… I couldn't breathe…”
Another common human response to the anxiety episode is to hold the breath and think about catastrophic consequences. The inefficient breathing and fearful thoughts can prolong the physical effects of the most acute phase so it can feel as if the anxiety goes on and on forever.
Phase 3: Anticipatory anxiety
After having an intense experience of anxiety, we might start to anticipate the next one. This is when the mind begins focusing on preparing for the next anxiety episode. We might think “it’s over for now but I’m sure it will happen again… what will I do? How will I cope? What if I can’t cope?... I won't be able to handle it…”
Some other physical and psychological reactions and responses during this phase of anxiety include hyper-vigilance (being on guard for other potential threats), heart palpitations, worry (considering all of the possible “what ifs”), catastrophising (imagining the worst possible outcome), and isolation (spending more time alone, not continuing with the activities and routines that provide us with feelings of achievement and pleasure).
The good news
All three phases of anxiety can be managed more effectively. We can learn to change our breathing patterns during the acute, aftermath or anticipatory phases of anxiety to calm the body and regulate the nervous system to reduce the physical reactions in the body. We also can use psychological skills and techniques such as reminding ourselves of calm and comforting thoughts or challenging negative thoughts to calm the mind and focus on what is helpful, not harmful, to us.
So, the next time you notice yourself feeling anxious try to become more aware of your experiences. Stop and ask yourself: what phase of anxiety is happening for me right now? And think about what responses might help to calm the body and mind.
BAM Therapy offers therapeutic yoga classes and yoga courses that integrate evidence-based psychological therapy practices to reduce anxiety, relieve stress, and improve mood to help us better manage the challenges we face.
Find out more information about accessing individual psychological therapy offered by BAM Therapy.
Thank you for reading! Please do share any feedback or comments below or let us know any suggestions for future blog articles.
Centre for Clinical Interventions. (2021). Information and worksheets on anxiety:
Khalsa, M. & Greiner-Ferris, J. (2019). Y-CBT: Yoga-Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – Group Leader’s Manual.
Westbrook, D., Kennerley, H. & Kirk, J. (2007). Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: skills and applications. London: Sage Publications.