top of page

Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety and Worry


two hands breaking a chain with sky background

In the modern world, anxiety has become a pervasive force, affecting people across all walks of life. From the fleeting unease of everyday stressors to the crippling grip of panic attacks, anxiety manifests in myriad forms, taking a toll on our bodies, minds, and relationships.


But what lies at the heart of this complex phenomenon? Why do we get anxious, and how can we break free?


This article is meant to empower you in breaking the cycle of anxiety. In this exploration, I will present the intricate web of factors that contribute to anxiety and worry as well as discuss how chronic worry affects us physically, energetically, and emotionally. Join me on this journey as we unravel the mysteries of anxiety and discover pathways to healing and resilience.


The Autonomic Nervous System


At the core of our physiological response to stress and anxiety is the autonomic nervous system (ANS), a complex network of nerves that regulates involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate.


There are two main branches—the sympathetic nervous system - responsible for activating the "fight, flight, or freeze" response — and the parasympathetic nervous system — responsible for promoting rest and relaxation. The ANS plays a vital role in orchestrating our body's response to perceived threats and stressors.


When confronted with a perceived danger, the sympathetic nervous system springs into action, releasing a surge of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, priming the body for rapid action.


This evolutionary response, honed over millennia, served our ancestors well in the face of tangible dangers such as predators or hostile tribes. However, in the modern world, where the threats we face are often more abstract and psychological in nature, this primal response can misfire, triggering anxiety in the absence of immediate danger.


The autonomic nervous system cannot distinguish between real danger and perceived threats—it must react immediately without pausing to evaluate the situation.

How Worry Affects Our Energy


The Flight, Fight, or Freeze Response and Chronic Anxiety


The "fight, flight, or freeze" response reflects our innate survival instinct in the face of danger. When confronted with a perceived threat, our bodies instinctively prepare for action, mobilizing resources to either confront the threat head-on (fight), flee from it (flight), or in some cases, remain immobilized in a state of paralysis (freeze).


While this response is crucial in life-threatening situations, in the context of modern-day stressors such as work pressures, financial worries, or relationship conflicts, it can become maladaptive, leading to chronic anxiety and stress-related disorders.


The Triple Warmer Meridian


The Triple Warmer Meridian governs the body's response to stress and regulates the flow of energy (Qi) throughout the body. Imbalances in the Triple Warmer Meridian can lead to anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, digestive, and immune disturbances.


Chronic worry can have significant effects on the Triple Warmer Meridian, disrupting its normal flow of Qi (vital energy) and leading to imbalances in the body. Here are some potential effects of chronic worry on the Triple Warmer Meridian.


Qi Stagnation


Chronic worry can lead to Qi stagnation along the Triple Warmer Meridian. When Qi becomes stagnant, it cannot flow freely through the meridian, leading to feelings of tension, discomfort, and emotional congestion. This can manifest physically as tightness in the chest, shoulders, and neck, as well as digestive disturbances and hormonal imbalances.


Organ Dysfunction


The Triple Warmer Meridian is responsible for coordinating the activities of the upper, middle, and lower regions of the body. Chronic worry can disrupt the balance among these three "burners," leading to dysfunction in various organ systems. For example, excessive worry may cause an imbalance in the upper burner, leading to symptoms such as insomnia, palpitations, and anxiety. Similarly, worry may affect the middle and lower burners, leading to digestive issues, hormonal imbalances, and reproductive problems.


Emotional Imbalances


In Energy Medicine, emotions are closely linked to the flow of Qi and the function of the meridians. Chronic worry is associated with the emotion of overthinking, which can disrupt the Triple Warmer Meridian and lead to emotional imbalances. Excessive worry may cause feelings of anxiety, fear, and restlessness, as well as difficulty concentrating and making decisions.


Disruption of Circadian Rhythms


The Triple Warmer Meridian is also believed to be involved in regulating the body's circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycle. Chronic worry can disrupt these rhythms, leading to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep.


Addressing chronic worry and its effects on the Triple Warmer Meridian typically involves a holistic approach that may include energy and vibrational medicine, Reiki, acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy, coaching/counseling, lifestyle modifications, and stress management techniques such as emotional hygiene, meditation, and qigong.


By restoring balance to the Triple Warmer Meridian and addressing the root causes of chronic worry, individuals can promote overall health and well-being in body, mind, and spirit.


Why We Worry


Research suggests that there are several factors contributing to why people get stuck in worry and freeze mode, unable to break free from a cycle of anxious thoughts and inaction. These reasons often intersect with psychological, cognitive, and physiological processes, creating a complex web that brings individuals into a state of chronic worry. Here are some key insights from research.


Cognitive Biases


Those prone to worry often exhibit cognitive biases, such as catastrophizing (exaggerating the potential negative outcomes of a situation) and rumination (repetitively focusing on the causes and consequences of distress). These biases can distort perceptions of reality, leading to heightened anxiety and a sense of being trapped in a negative cycle.


Perceived Lack of Control


Worry frequently arises from a perceived lack of control over one's circumstances or outcomes. When individuals feel helpless or powerless to influence events, they may resort to worrying as a way to regain a semblance of control, even though it ultimately exacerbates their distress.


Fear of Uncertainty


Human beings have an inherent aversion to uncertainty, as it threatens our sense of safety and predictability. Research indicates that individuals who are intolerant of uncertainty are more likely to experience excessive worry, as they engage in futile attempts to eliminate uncertainty through excessive planning or avoidance behaviors.


Avoidance Behaviors


Paradoxically, while worry may initially serve as a coping mechanism to anticipate and prepare for potential threats, it can also lead to avoidance behaviors that perpetuate anxiety. Research suggests that individuals who worry excessively are more likely to avoid challenging or uncertain situations, further reinforcing their sense of fear and apprehension.


Physiological Factors


The body's physiological response to stress plays a significant role in perpetuating worry and freeze mode. Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system, characterized by elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline, can impair cognitive functioning and exacerbate anxiety symptoms.


Environmental Influences


Social and environmental factors, such as childhood experiences, family dynamics, and societal norms, can also contribute to the development and perpetuation of worry. Research suggests that individuals who grow up in environments characterized by overprotective parenting or high levels of stress are more likely to internalize maladaptive coping mechanisms, including excessive worry.


Personality Traits


Certain personality traits, such as neuroticism and perfectionism, are associated with a heightened propensity for worry and freeze mode. Individuals high in neuroticism tend to experience negative emotions more intensely and frequently, while perfectionists set unrealistically high standards for themselves, leading to chronic feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.


Overall, research indicates that the reasons why people get stuck in worry and freeze mode are multifaceted, involving a combination of cognitive, emotional, physiological, and environmental factors.


How Worry Becomes Habitual


Worrying can become habitual through a combination of psychological, cognitive, and behavioral mechanisms that reinforce its repetitive nature. Understanding these processes sheds light on how we may become entrenched in patterns of chronic worry.


Reinforcement


When worry initially occurs in response to a perceived threat or uncertainty, individuals may experience temporary relief from anxiety through worrying. This relief acts as a form of negative reinforcement, reinforcing the behavior of worrying as a means of coping with distressing thoughts and emotions. Over time, this reinforcement strengthens the association between worrying and relief, making it more likely for individuals to resort to worrying in future situations.


Cognitive Processes


Habitual worrying is often driven by cognitive processes such as rumination and catastrophizing. Rumination involves repetitively focusing on negative thoughts and feelings without reaching a resolution, which can prolong and intensify worry.


Catastrophizing involves exaggerating the severity or consequences of potential threats, leading individuals to engage in excessive worry as a way to prepare for or prevent these imagined catastrophes. These cognitive patterns become ingrained over time, contributing to the habitual nature of worry.


Conditioning


Similar to Pavlovian conditioning, environmental cues or triggers can become associated with worry, leading to automatic and habitual responses. For example, certain situations, places, or even specific thoughts or memories may serve as cues that trigger worry responses. Over time, these cues can elicit worry automatically, even in the absence of an actual threat, further reinforcing the habit of worrying.


Emotional Regulation


For some individuals, worrying serves as a maladaptive strategy for regulating emotions, particularly anxiety. When faced with overwhelming emotions, such as fear or uncertainty, worrying provides a temporary distraction or outlet for expressing and processing these feelings. As a result, individuals may develop a habit of turning to worrying as their default coping mechanism, even when it is ineffective or counterproductive in the long term.


Social Learning


Observational learning and social modeling also play a role in the development of habitual worrying. Individuals may learn to worry from observing others, particularly family members or peers who exhibit similar anxiety-related behaviors. Additionally, societal norms and cultural expectations regarding the importance of planning for the future and avoiding potential risks may reinforce the habit of worrying as a socially acceptable behavior.


Neuroplasticity


The brain's capacity for neuroplasticity—the ability to reorganize and adapt in response to experience—plays a crucial role in the formation of habitual behaviors, including worrying. As individuals repeatedly engage in worrying, neural pathways associated with this behavior may become strengthened, making it easier and more automatic over time.


Efforts to break the habit of worrying can lead to rewiring of neural circuits through repeated practice of alternative coping strategies, such as mindfulness or cognitive restructuring.

The Effects of Chronic Worry on the Body and Mind


While occasional bouts of anxiety are a normal part of the human experience, chronic worry can take a profound toll on our physical and mental health.


Research shows that persistent anxiety weakens the immune system, making us more prone to infections. Chronic stress and anxiety are linked to cardiovascular problems like hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. They also disrupt brain function, affecting neurotransmitter levels, brain wave patterns, and brain structures involved in emotional regulation and memory. Additionally, chronic anxiety can worsen mental health conditions such as depression, OCD, and PTSD, creating a cycle of distress and dysfunction.


Chronic Worry and the Immune System


Chronic stress is known to have a profound impact on the immune system, leading to dysregulation and impaired immune function. Here are some key findings from research on this topic.


Glucocorticoid Resistance

Chronic stress leads to the prolonged release of glucocorticoids (such as cortisol), which can cause immune cells to become less sensitive to these hormones. This glucocorticoid resistance impairs the body's ability to regulate inflammation, increasing susceptibility to infections and autoimmune diseases.


Reduced Lymphocyte Proliferation

Studies have shown that chronic stress reduces the proliferation of lymphocytes, which are critical for the adaptive immune response. This reduction weakens the body's ability to fight off pathogens effectively .


Increased Inflammatory Response

Chronic stress is associated with elevated levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α). These cytokines contribute to a heightened inflammatory state, which can damage tissues and organs over time and is linked to various chronic diseases .


Altered Natural Killer Cell Activity

Natural killer cells (NK) play a vital role in the body's defense against viruses and cancer cells. Research indicates that chronic stress can reduce NK cell activity, compromising the body's ability to combat these threats effectively.


Chronic Worry and the Heart


Increased Risk of Coronary Heart Disease

Studies have consistently found that chronic stress, including work-related stress and social stressors, is associated with an increased risk of developing heart disease. The mechanisms include increased inflammation, changes in blood lipid levels, and elevated blood pressure.


Hypertension

Chronic stress can lead to sustained increases in blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Repeated activation of the stress response causes blood vessels to constrict and heart rate to increase, contributing to long-term hypertension.


Inflammation

Chronic stress promotes inflammation by increasing the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Inflammation plays a crucial role in the development of atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of plaque in the arteries and a key factor in heart disease.


Autonomic Nervous System Imbalance

The increased sympathetic activity (fight-flight-or freeze response) and reduced parasympathetic activity (rest-and-digest response) can lead to dysrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and other cardiac dysfunction.


Increased Heart Rate and Reduced Heart Rate Variability

Chronic stress often leads to an increased resting heart rate and reduced heart rate variability (HRV), both of which are associated with higher cardiovascular risk. Reduced HRV indicates poor autonomic regulation of the heart, making it more susceptible to stress-induced damage.


Behavioral Risk Factors

Chronic stress is linked to behaviors that increase the risk of cardiac dysfunction, such as smoking, overeating, physical inactivity, and poor sleep. These behaviors compound the direct physiological effects of stress on the heart.


Myocardial Ischemia

Research has shown that chronic stress can lead to myocardial ischemia, a condition where blood flow to the heart is reduced, causing chest pain (angina) and increasing the risk of heart attacks.


Cardiomyopathy

Chronic stress has been implicated in stress-induced cardiomyopathy, also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or "broken heart syndrome." This condition is characterized by temporary weakening of the heart muscle, often triggered by severe emotional or physical stress.


Chronic Worry and the Brain


Structural Changes


Chronic stress can lead to changes in the structure of the brain, including alterations in neuronal morphology, synaptic connectivity, and neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons).


Prolonged exposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol, can result in the atrophy of neurons in brain regions like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. These structural changes may impair cognitive processes such as learning and memory, as well as executive functions like decision-making and impulse control.


Functional Changes


In addition to structural alterations, chronic stress can disrupt the functional connectivity of brain networks involved in emotion regulation and stress response.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have revealed aberrant patterns of brain activity in individuals experiencing chronic stress, including hyperactivity in regions like the amygdala (involved in processing emotions) and hypoactivity in areas like the prefrontal cortex (responsible for cognitive control and regulation of emotions). These functional changes may contribute to heightened emotional reactivity, difficulties in emotion regulation, and an increased vulnerability to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.


Neurotransmitter Imbalance


Chronic stress can also dysregulate neurotransmitter systems in the brain, leading to alterations in the balance of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These neurotransmitters play key roles in modulating mood, motivation, and stress responses. Imbalances in neurotransmitter levels have been implicated in the pathophysiology of mood disorders and may contribute to the development of conditions like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Impaired Neuroplasticity


Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize and adapt in response to experience, is disrupted by chronic stress. These stress-induced changes can impair the brain's capacity to adapt to new challenges and recover from stress-related damage.


The Heart-Mind Connection


The understanding of the relationship between the heart and the brain has evolved significantly in recent years, thanks to advancements in neuroscience and cardiology. Researchers have delved into the intricate interplay between these two vital organs, uncovering a complex network of physiological and psychological factors that influence not only our emotions but also our behavior and overall well-being.


The emerging field of neurocardiology has been instrumental in exploring and elucidating these connections. Neurocardiology investigates the communication pathways between the heart, brain, and nervous system, highlighting the dynamic interrelationship among these systems. Pioneered by organizations such as the HeartMath Institute, neurocardiology seeks to understand how the heart's activity impacts cognitive function, emotional regulation, and physiological responses to stress.


One key aspect of neurocardiology research is the recognition of the heart as more than just a pump. Beyond its mechanical function of circulating blood, the heart is recognized as an intricate information processing center, capable of sending and receiving signals that influence brain activity and vice versa. For example, the heart generates a rhythmic electromagnetic field that can be detected by the brain and other organs, influencing neural activity and emotional states.


Studies in neurocardiology have revealed that the heart communicates with the brain through multiple channels, including neural pathways, hormonal signaling, and feedback loops involving the autonomic nervous system. This communication network allows the heart to modulate cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and decision-making, as well as emotional experiences such as stress, anxiety, and resilience.


Moreover, research in neurocardiology has highlighted the role of heart rate variability (HRV) as a biomarker of both cardiac health and emotional regulation. HRV refers to the variation in the time intervals between consecutive heartbeats and reflects the flexibility and adaptability of the autonomic nervous system. High HRV is associated with better cardiovascular health, cognitive function, and emotional resilience, while low HRV is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, and impaired stress responses.


This research offers valuable insights into the intricate relationship between the heart and the brain, underscoring the importance of our thought processes on our health and well-being.


By understanding and harnessing the power of the heart-brain connection, we can enhance emotional resilience and optimize cognitive function.

Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety


Overall, worrying becomes habitual through an interplay of reinforcement, cognitive processes (thoughts), conditioning, emotional regulation, social learning, and neuroplasticity. Breaking free from the grip of habitual worrying often requires concerted effort, self-awareness, and the adoption of alternative coping strategies to disrupt these ingrained patterns and cultivate healthier ways of managing stress and uncertainty.


One key aspect of this journey is recognizing the role of the nervous system in perpetuating the cycle of anxiety. Our nervous system evolved to respond to immediate threats and dangers, but in the absence of such threats, it can sometimes misinterpret everyday stressors as life-threatening emergencies, triggering a cascade of physiological and psychological responses that fuel anxiety and distress.


By learning to distinguish between real threats and perceived dangers, one can begin to retrain their nervous system's response to stress, promoting a greater sense of calm and control in the face of adversity.

Through practices such as heart coherence techniques, we can learn to synchronize our heart rhythms with our brain waves, fostering a state of balance and harmony that promotes resilience and emotional well-being. In a state of heart-brain coherence, we can learn to manage stress more effectively, reduce symptoms of anxiety, and improve overall quality of life.


If you would like additional information on this subject, including more on how to break the cycle of worry, check out this article that I wrote on the subject: Automatic Negative Thinking: How to Overcome Automatic Negative Thoughts.


In Summary: Navigating the Pathways to Peace and Wholeness


Anxiety is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that arises from a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. By understanding the roots of anxiety and exploring holistic approaches to healing and resilience, we can embark on a journey of self-discovery and transformation, reclaiming our innate capacity for peace, joy, and wholeness.


If you are in need of assistance, at Sacred Awaken, I offer a variety of transformational services that can assist you in moving forward and finding greater ease in your life. As we navigate the pathways of anxiety and self-healing, may we cultivate compassion, courage, and curiosity, embracing each moment as an opportunity for growth and awakening.

With gratitude for the human condition, Michelle


Person junping over a canyon from negative to positive

References


Antoni, M. H., Lutgendorf, S. K., Cole, S. W., et al. (2006). The influence of bio-behavioural factors on tumour biology: pathways and mechanisms. *Nature Reviews Cancer*, 6(3), 240-248.


Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422.


Black, P. H., & Garbutt, L. D. (2002). Stress, inflammation and cardiovascular disease. *Journal of Psychosomatic Research*, 52(1), 1-23.


Borkovec, T. D., & Roemer, L. (1995). Perceived functions of worry among generalized anxiety disorder subjects: Distraction from more emotionally distressing topics? *Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry*, 26(1), 25-30.


Brosschot, J. F., Gerin, W., & Thayer, J. F. (2006). The perseverative cognition hypothesis: A review of worry, prolonged stress-related physiological activation, and health. *Journal of Psychosomatic Research*, 60(2), 113-124.


Chandola, T., Brunner, E., & Marmot, M. (2006). Chronic stress at work and the metabolic syndrome: prospective study. *BMJ*, 332(7540), 521-525.


Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Miller, G. E. (2007). Psychological stress and disease. *JAMA*, 298(14), 1685-1687.


Davey, G. C. L., & Wells, A. (2006). Worry and its psychological disorders: Theory, assessment and treatment. *John Wiley & Sons*.


Dimsdale, J. E. (2008). Psychological stress and cardiovascular disease. *Journal of the American College of Cardiology*, 51(13), 1237-1246.


Dugas, M. J., Gosselin, P., & Ladouceur, R. (2001). Intolerance of uncertainty and worry: Investigating specificity in a nonclinical sample. *Cognitive Therapy and Research*, 25(5), 551-558.


Glaser, R., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2005). Stress-induced immune dysfunction: implications for health. *Nature Reviews Immunology*, 5(3), 243-251.


HeartMath Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.heartmath.com/


Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., McGuire, L., Robles, T. F., & Glaser, R. (2002). Emotions, morbidity, and mortality: new perspectives from psychoneuroimmunology. *Annual Review of Psychology*, 53(1), 83-107.


Ladouceur, R., Dugas, M. J., Freeston, M. H., Léger, E., Gagnon, F., & Thibodeau, N. (2000). Efficacy of a cognitive-behavioral treatment for generalized anxiety disorder: Evaluation in a controlled clinical trial. *Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology*, 68(6), 957-964.


McEwen, B. S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: central role of the brain. Physiological Reviews, 87(3), 873-904.


McEwen, B. S. (2016). In pursuit of resilience: stress, epigenetics, and brain plasticity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 56-64.


McEwen, B. S., & Morrison, J. H. (2013). The brain on stress: vulnerability and plasticity of the prefrontal cortex over the life course. Neuron, 79(1), 16-29.


Molina, S., & Borkovec, T. D. (1994). The Penn State Worry Questionnaire: Psychometric properties and associated characteristics. In *Worrying: Perspectives on theory, assessment, and treatment* (pp. 265-283). John Wiley & Sons.


Rozanski, A., Blumenthal, J. A., & Kaplan, J. (1999). Impact of psychological factors on the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease and implications for therapy. *Circulation*, 99(16), 2192-2217.


Sapolsky, R. M. (2015). Stress and the brain: individual variability and the inverted-U. Nature Neuroscience, 18(10), 1344-1346.


Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. *Psychological Bulletin*, 130(4), 601.


Steptoe, A., & Kivimäki, M. (2012). Stress and cardiovascular disease. *Nature Reviews Cardiology*, 9(6), 360-370.

Comments


bottom of page