There is no cure for anxiety. Though medical professionals have concocted a number of different treatment options, there is no universal way to get rid of anxiety. But, what if there was a universal pattern among people with anxiety? And, what if by addressing this universal pattern, there’s a chance for anxiety to be cured?
What we’re talking about is better known as a negative feedback loop.
The term reference often made to three overlapping events common among people with anxiety; a trigger, a mental reaction, and a physical reaction. Generally speaking, a feedback loop is the way we naturally handle various life events – whether we have anxiety or not.
Throughout this article, we’re going to take a deeper look into what a negative feedback loop is and what you can do to prevent it. At the end, we invite you to ask any further questions you may have.
What is a Negative Feedback Loop?
In terms of anxiety, negative feedback loop is when one experiences three overlapping events:
- A Trigger or Environmental Cue – When one experiences a situation they feel uncomfortable with (i.e. public speaking, a party).
- A Mental Reaction – A way for the brain to properly handle the above cue (i.e. negative thoughts, self-talk, paranoia).
- A Physical Reaction – A way for the body to properly handle the above cue (i.e. breathing rapidly, fist clenching).
The combination of these three events usually creates a negative feedback loop – when a person begets a trigger due to past mental and physical reactions. ¹
For the most part, a person struggling with anxiety will avoid any potential triggers. And though they may be aware they’re avoiding these potential triggers, what’s often not understood is why.
The Habit of Our Brains
The consequences of a negative feedback loop go beyond what most people will at first consider. For example, some people get so caught up in a negative feedback loop, they’re afraid to leave their home.
When a negative feedback loop first instills within a person’s brain, it may not appear to be such a threat.
For example, let’s a person was humiliated at a restaurant and the ridicule left them feeling anxious. One day, much later on in the future when they’re hungry, they may fondly remember a dish at said restaurant and start to head there.
As they’re in the car, on the way to the restaurant, the memory of the humiliation sets in. This person is set up with two options; to go into the restaurant and confront the memory or to avoid it. ²
If the memory alone causes the person to experience similar physical and mental reactions from when they were humiliated, then they’ve become victim to the negative feedback loop. And they’ll most likely avoid that restaurant for as long as possible.
This may seem innocent enough in one example, but what if this person had a similar experience at the coffee shop and then the movie theater and then on their university campus? Under the habit of the negative feedback loop, they’ll also avoid these situations.
And, from there, it’s a downward spiral into solitude.
Ultimately, this is one of the biggest dangers to people with anxiety – getting so caught in the negative feedback loop that they forget how they had handled everyday situations.
Luckily, there is a way to confront the negative feedback loop and, in the long run, confront anxiety as a whole.
How to Break the Negative Feedback Loop
The only way to properly break a negative feedback loop is with a positive feedback loop.
This means taking your habits in a new direction. In many regards, it means facing your fears.
Going off the example mentioned above, let’s say this person finally manages the courage to go into the restaurant. And, to take things further, let’s say they had a good time there.
Though it won’t happen immediately, their brain will eventually associate the restaurant with good. The same can go for any other place they may have feared to enter.
If our brain’s can habitually get caught up in a negative feedback loop, there’s no reason they can’t backfire this with a positive feedback loop.
Serotonin and the Positive Feedback Loop
In fact, one of the biggest perks to a positive feedback loop is it’s a natural stimulant for serotonin.
Let’s say you do something that makes you feel good – it can be as simple as cleaning your room to as big as landing your dream career. Whatever the case may be, your brain will naturally produce the chemical serotonin – a natural feel-good chemical.
If you propel yourself into a positive feedback loop, you can use this serotonin for more good. For example, after you clean your room and are feeling good, you can go workout for an hour which will make you feel even better – in turn, produce more serotonin. And with that serotonin, you can accomplish more things to make yourself feel good. ³
This is the beauty of the feedback loop. Not only does it hold the potential for good, but it namely relies on habit. By practicing good habit, you can theoretically get yourself out of a negative feedback loop and, as is the case with many people, alleviate much anxiety.
Of course, forming positive habits isn’t easy. Especially, if you’re struggling with a mental disorder as powerful as anxiety.
By reading through this blog, you’ve already developed a better understanding of how the anxious brain works. You’ve also learned that this anxiety can be reversed.
What you do with this knowledge is ultimately up to you. We’re not here to proclaim that breaking old habits and facing fears are easy tasks to set before yourself.
We’re merely hoping you understand the opportunity such actions can offer.
Still have questions about what anxiety’s negative feedback loop is and how to break it?
We invite you to ask them in the comments below. If you have any further advice you’d like to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: Effects of informative and confirmatory feedback on brain activation during negative feedback processing
² National Science Foundation: Exploring the Brain’s Relationship to Habits
³ International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology: The Role of Serotonin (5-HT) in Behavioral Control: Findings from Animal Research and Clinical Implications