Secondary anxiety: the anxiety generated by living with anxiety

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Robert Maurer
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If the anxiety episodes cause you even more anxiety, if you have a panic attack when you feel your heart speeding up and each time you fear more and more anxiety symptoms, you are probably suffering from what you know. as "secondary anxiety". That is, your anxiety is generating even more anxiety.

We've all experienced anxiety at some point in life, but we can normally cope with that feeling of apprehension and tension. However, when we fail to manage these reactions and begin to fear them, we run the risk of developing a self-sustaining anxiety disorder, creating a vicious cycle in which anxiety is both a cause and a consequence.



What is secondary anxiety?

The term "secondary" is used to mean a problem that arises as a result of a primary condition. In the case of secondary anxiety, this arises from fear of anxiety, that is, from everything we think about our anxiety and what we feel about those feelings.

In fact, in many cases, anxiety disorder is not the primary problem, but the secondary one. A study conducted at Harvard Medical School found that 40% of cases of generalized anxiety disorders correspond to secondary anxiety.

In clinical practice, it is confirmed that in many cases of anxiety, secondary anxiety plays a leading role in creating and maintaining the disorder.

The 5 dangers of secondary anxiety

As pointed out by Daniel Defoe, “the burden of anxiety is greater than the harm it causes”. Secondary anxiety can become very disabling, affecting the quality of life of those who suffer from it.

1. Secondary anxiety intensifies unpleasant emotions. Everything you resist persists. Resistance to anxiety also exacerbates the underlying problem. The more you worry about feeling anxious and the more you fear the symptoms, the more fuel you will add to those unpleasant emotions, generating more discomfort.



2. Secondary anxiety gives rise to other disorders. Secondary anxiety can cause other psychological problems. In fact, secondary anxiety has a greater comorbidity than primary anxiety. In fact, it has been found that people with secondary anxiety are more likely to suffer from agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress, major depression and substance abuse.

3. Secondary anxiety shapes a gray future. If you think you can't handle your emotions, you are fueling a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since anxiety exists in the future, in the world of possibilities, anchoring yourself to the belief that you cannot do anything to alleviate it, will put you on a dead end that will fuel a state of helplessness in which anxiety will grow.

4. Secondary anxiety erodes self-confidence. Fearing your emotions and thinking that they are out of your control will eventually affect the image you have formed of yourself. You will probably start to think that you will not be able to recover and, therefore, you will not even try, closing a vicious circle in which you will feel more and more trapped and with fewer alternatives.

5. Secondary anxiety prevents you from understanding the main message. Secondary anxiety leads you to focus too much on fear, causing you to divert attention from the situation that generated the primary picture. This means that it will be harder for you to find out the cause. Be aware that anxiety is a sign that you have a problem that you should solve. Secondary anxiety diverts your attention, preventing you from getting to the root of the problem.


How is secondary anxiety established?

Secondary anxiety is the result of fear and concern for anxiety symptoms and subsequent resistance to them. For example, if you've had a panic attack, you'll know it's not a pleasant experience.

Suddenly your heart goes crazy, your breathing speeds up and becomes more unstable, you have cold sweats, you can feel dizzy and suffer from such intense fear that the brain "shuts down". To those extremely unpleasant symptoms is added the uncertainty of not knowing what is going on.


When you finally get over the episode, fear is likely to assail you - what if it happens again?

That fear triggers a hypervigilance mechanism. Basically, a kind of "paranoia" sets in and leads you to pay more attention to small changes that can alert you that you are about to have another anxiety attack. This can cause you to misinterpret completely normal physiological cues, which will result in another panic attack, this time self-induced.

This state of constant control also increases underlying anxiety; that is, you start living with your nerves on edge waiting for something bad to happen at any moment.

This state ends up complicating and aggravating the anxiety picture significantly, serving as a catalyst for chronic anxiety.

How to eliminate secondary anxiety?

Fear of anxiety is not helpful. This fear not only aggravates the anxious experience, it also generates enormous weakness. Secondary anxiety is a normal reaction to situations that scare us. This means that we shouldn't feel guilty, but we need to understand that this fear only makes the experience worse.


To eliminate secondary anxiety, we must act on three levels: physical, emotional and rational.

• On a physical level. Symptoms of anxiety cause intense reactions on a physiological level, but if you spot the first signs quickly you can manage them before they get worse. Learning to breathe correctly, for example, will help you calm down.

Several studies, including one conducted at the University of Warwick, have found that respiratory oscillations lead to the modulation and / or synchronization of heart rate and brain waves through a mechanism involving the autonomic nervous system. Practicing yoga and mindfulness meditation will also help you reduce basic anxiety, so you will have to worry less and less about anxiety.

• On an emotional level. “Our anxiety doesn't come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it,” said Kahlil Gibran. It is important to be aware that resistance breeds conflicts and unpleasant emotions. Accepting anxiety, on the other hand, will lessen those emotions.


You shouldn't consider anxiety an enemy to be defeated but rather an alarm that signals that there is a problem to be solved. Anxiety is a part of life, you can't always avoid it, and while it can be an unpleasant experience at times, the way you deal with it determines how harmful it can be.

• On a rational level. William James said: "The best weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another." Just as dysfunctional thoughts fuel anxiety, adaptive thoughts reduce it. Being aware of your narrative will help you understand how your thoughts are perpetuating anxiety.

Analyze a recent episode of anxiety and remember the thoughts that went through your mind just before, during and after the episode. If those thoughts fueled fear, anxiety, and avoidance, they were dysfunctional. A strategy to replace them with more functional thoughts is to challenge them, analyzing their rationality. For example, if your heart speeds up, instead of thinking you are going to die, you can calm down by thinking that it is an anxiety symptom that you can manage.

Sometimes, managing anxiety can be tricky, so professional help from a psychologist is needed. Keep in mind that the sooner you receive treatment, the easier it will be to eliminate or even prevent secondary anxiety. Don't wait for the problem to consolidate.

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