A CHRONICALLY HOSTILE person, assuming
everyone is out to get him, treats people meanly. He is defensive.
He cuts people down before they have a chance to cut him down.
This makes people resent him and act hostile in return, which
reinforces his belief that everyone is out to get him. This makes
him even more likely to be hostile in the future. Chronic hostility
and peoples' response to it produce a self-feeding loop.
Stress hormones are especially vulnerable
to feedback loops because they cause physical sensations. Those
physical sensations are fed to the brain and alter thoughts and
perception. Those thoughts and perceptions stimulate your glands
to secrete even more stress hormones, etc.
Panic attacks, for instance, happen this
way: Some thought or event triggers a burst of adrenaline, which
naturally shows up as sweaty palms, pounding heart, etc. Johnny
notices his pounding heart and thinks, "What if this is
a heart attack?" This possibility scares him. His adrenal
glands dump even more stress hormones into his bloodstream, which
cause his heart to pound even more, which scares him even more,
and so on.
Later, when he thinks about what happened,
it frightens him. Johnny starts worrying it will happen again.
This anxiety, of course, raises his baseline adrenaline level,
making him more likely to have another panic attack.
A panic attack is a feedback loop. And
you will notice that the things that trigger a panic attack are
only those things from which a loop can develop heartbeat,
breathing, feeling dizzy, etc. You will never find someone having
a panic attack about knee pain.
It gets worse. If he has a panic attack
driving, Johnny may begin to fear driving. His nervousness when
he gets into the car again means he's got extra adrenaline in
his bloodstream, which may trigger another panic attack as adrenaline
causes physical sensations that are then fed to the brain and
alter thoughts and perceptions, which then increase his adrenaline
output. Do this a few more times and poor Johnny may develop
a phobia of driving. If it occurs at the top of a building, he
may develop a phobia of heights. And so on.
One of the effective things a therapist
might do for Johnny is to reassure him that although adrenaline
may cause his heart to pound, it won't give him a heart attack.
Another thing a therapist might do is teach him to relax at will
with breathing exercises or Progressive Relaxation training or
The reassurance and the control over his
own state of tension breaks the loop. The anxiety stops
feeding back on itself. It stops making itself worse.
Panic attacks are an extreme example of
the kinds of things that can occur whenever adrenaline is involved.
You have a worrisome thought. It creates a mild feeling of fear
and some muscle tension. This fear and tension tend to make you
think more about things you're afraid of, or puts a more anxious
spin on what you remember the boss said to you this morning.
This increases your adrenaline output even more, etc.
You can break your own self-feeding loop
for your everyday anxiety using the same techniques on yourself
that therapists use on their clients: Reassure yourself and learn
to control your own level of relaxation.
Why did I tell you all this? Simply because
one method that effectively reduces anxiety is understanding
more about how stress hormones work. Ignorance is not bliss.
Information can make a huge difference. For example, at one time
nobody knew germs existed. You can't see them and microscopes
hadn't been invented yet. So doctors didn't wash their hands.
They didn't disinfect their instruments. Thousands of people
died because of their lack of understanding.
With an understanding of how a self-feeding
loop works, you can make up your own methods. Any particular
method isn't that important when you understand how things work.
Once doctors knew about germs, they quickly invented and are
still inventing methods for dealing with it. Until germs were
discovered, however, the methods might have been worthless. If
they were merely taught the methods without being given the understanding,
the doctors might have applied the method of washing their hands,
for example, and then dried them on a dirty towel.
I have heard of an educational program
that was tried in the Philippines. There was an ongoing health
problem caused by bacteria in their drinking water. Although
some places in China had the same germ in their water, they had
no health problem because the Chinese drank tea. They boiled
their water before they drank it.
So the government went on a campaign to
educate people on the use of boiling water for drinking. They
taught the population a method without giving understanding.
The program didn't have the result they wanted because people
would boil water and then take a few teaspoons of the water,
like medicine. Other than that, they drank unboiled water!
It's like the story in Sports Illustrated.
Ronald Bradley went to prison for breaking and entering. He wore
gloves during his crimes, but he wore golf gloves the
kind that left his fingertips bare making it very easy
to identify him by his fingerprints. Bradley had applied the
method without understanding.
Understanding makes a difference. When
you are feeling anxious, and it seems your anxiety is getting
out of hand, one method is to simply read this article. Shed
some light on your situation. That, all by itself, can give you
When you feel anxious, read
Understanding the Loops.