Coastal Center for Anxiety Treatment

Name card of Dr. Eric goodman.

Step 5: The Phobic Cycle (What is maintaining my anxiety disorder or OCD?)

The Phobic Cycle

1. You are presented with a “trigger” (Something that has led to you feeling anxious or in danger in the past). The trigger can be:

  • External, like a dog, turbulence on a plane, or the edge of a steep mountain
  • Physical, like a fast heart-beat, shortness of breath, light-headedness, or nausea
  • Mental, like an unwanted thought or a memory

2. Your brain interprets the trigger as dangerous

  • The dog will bite!
  • The plane will crash!
  • You will fall off the mountain!
  • You are dying, losing control, and about to be physically or mentally damaged beyond repair!
  • Your unwanted thought means disaster!
  • Your memory will be intolerable if you allow yourself to observe it!

3. You feel anxiety

  • The anxiety is logically connected to the interpretation (I see a dog—My brain tells me I am going to get attacked—I experience anxiety)
  • Therefore, your brain needs to learn (best through direct experience) to make a different interpretation in order for you to feel differently when you are face-to-face with a trigger (I see a dog—My brain tells me that this dog is cute and friendly—I feel happy)

4. Your brain convinces you to engage in avoidance and/or safety behaviors

  • You avoid the triggers when you can
    • You stay away from places where dogs might be (or you avoid flying, public speaking, touching door knobs, increasing your heart rate, places that trigger thoughts or memories, and so forth
  • When you can’t avoid a trigger, you engage in safety behaviors
    • Fear being attacked by a dog, so bring a person with you to the park who you believe can protect you—or simply wear a full suit of armor!
    • Click here for more examples of safety behaviors (coming soon)
  • Useful fact: Avoidance and/or safety behaviors are potentially life-saving when a situation is actually dangerous
    • Police wait for back-up, carry weapons, and wear safety gear

5. Hey, “great” news: You survived! No catastrophe occurred! HOWEVER

  • You now falsely feel that your avoidance and safety behaviors kept you safe and therefore you’d better keep doing them…or else!
    • You did not learn that you would have been safe around the dog, on the airplane, or with “germy” hands, had you faced those situations without safety behaviors
      • You did not learn that the avoidance and safety behaviors were unnecessary
    • You did not learn that you could handle the situation
  • You did not learn that the trigger is safe—therefore, your danger interpretation persists—therefore, your phobic anxiety persists
    • You miss out on things that perhaps you would enjoy (Parks, travel, dating, and so on)
    • You remain stuck in the phobic cycle!

Breaking Out of the Phobic Cycle

This is what you do:

Face your triggers without safety behaviors repeatedly until you learn that it is okay and that you can handle it.

However, even though this is easy to understand, doing it is not easy—it is challenging!

When your brain mistakenly thinks you are in danger, it will try every trick in the book to keep you stuck in the phobic cycle.

Click here to learn about ways your brain tricks you into staying stuck in this cycle.

Next Step