If the pangs of anxiety cause you more anxiety, if you experience panic when you feel the heart accelerated and increasingly fear the anxious symptoms, it’s likely you’re suffering what is known as “secondary anxiety”. That is, your anxiety is generating more anxiety.
We have all experienced anxiety at some point in our lives, but normally we can deal 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 an anxiety disorder that self-feeds, generating a loop in which anxiety becomes both cause and consequence.
What is secondary anxiety?
The term “secondary” is used to describe a problem that arises as a result of a primary condition. In the case of secondary anxiety, it originates from the fear of anxiety, specifically due to the inadequate handling of the meta-anxiety, which is all we think about our anxiety and what we feel about those feelings.
In fact, in many cases, anxiety disorder is not the main problem but secondary. A study conducted at the Harvard Medical School revealed 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 the establishment and maintenance of the disorder.
The 5 dangers of secondary anxiety
As Daniel Defoe pointed out, “The weight of anxiety is greater than the evil it causes.” Secondary anxiety can become very disabling, affecting the quality of life of those who suffer it.
1. Secondary anxiety intensifies unpleasant emotions. Everything that you resist, persists. Resistance to anxiety also aggravates the problem that lies at its base. The more you worry about feeling anxious and more afraid of the symptoms, the more fuel you will add to those unpleasant emotions, generating greater discomfort.
2. Secondary anxiety gives rise to other disorders. Meta-anxiety can cause other psychological problems. In fact, secondary anxiety has a higher comorbidity than primary anxiety. 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 cannot manage your emotions, you will be feeding 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 improve anxiety will make you enter a cul-de-sac that will fuel a state of helplessness in which anxiety grows.
4. Secondary anxiety erodes self-confidence. Fearing your emotions and thinking they escape your control will end up affecting the image that you have formed of yourself. You are likely to start thinking that you are not able to recover and, therefore, you will not even try, closing a vicious circle in which you feel more and more trapped and with fewer alternatives.
5. Secondary anxiety prevents you from understanding the primary message. Meta-anxiety causes you to focus too much on fear, diverting your attention from the situation that generated the primary condition. That means it will be more difficult for you to discover its cause. Consider that anxiety is a sign that tells you that you have a problem that you should solve. Meta-anxiety will divert 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 the anxious symptoms and the consequent resistance to them. If you have suffered a panic attack, for example, you will know that it’s not a pleasant experience.
Suddenly the heart goes out of control, the breathing accelerates and becomes choppier, you experience cold sweats, feel dizzy and suffer a fear so intense that the brain “goes off”. To those extremely unpleasant symptoms is added the uncertainty of not knowing what is happening.
When you finally get over the episode, it’s likely that a fear grips you: What if it happens again?
That fear triggers a hypervigilance mechanism. In practice, is unleashed a kind of “paranoia” that leads you to pay more attention to the small changes that may warn you that you are going to suffer another anxiety attack. That can cause you to misinterpret totally normal physiological signals, which will trigger another panic attack, this time self-induced.
This state of constant scrutiny also increases baseline anxiety; that is, you’re always nervous, tense, waiting for something negative to happen from one moment to the next. This state ends up complicating and aggravating anxiety in a significant way, acting as a catalyst for chronic anxiety.
How to eliminate secondary anxiety?
Fear of anxiety is not useful. This fear not only aggravates the anxious experience but also generates great weakness. Of course, secondary anxiety is a normal reaction to situations that scare us. This means that we should not feel guilty, but we must 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. The symptoms of anxiety cause intense reactions at the physiological level, but if you quickly detect the first signs, you can manage them before they get worse. Learning breathing exercises, for example, will help you calm down quickly.
Different studies, including one conducted at the University of Warwick, have shown that respiratory oscillations lead to the modulation and/or synchronization of heart rate and brain waves through a mechanism that involves the autonomic nervous system. The practice of yoga, meditation and mindfulness will also help you to reduce basal anxiety, so that you will have to worry less about anxiety.
• On an emotional level. “Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it”, said Kahlil Gibran. It’s important to be aware that resistance fuels conflict and unpleasant emotions. Accepting anxiety, on the contrary, will diminish those emotions.
You should not see anxiety as an enemy to beat but as a warning of a problem or conflict that you need to resolve. Anxiety is part of life, you cannot always avoid it, and although it can sometimes be an unpleasant experience, your way of dealing 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 decrease it. Being aware of your narrative will help you understand how your thoughts are perpetuating anxiety.
Analyze a recent anxiety experience and remember the thoughts that went through your mind just before, during, and after that episode. If those thoughts fed fear, anxiety and avoidance, they were dysfunctional. A strategy to substitute them with more functional ones is to challenge them, analyzing their rationality. For example, if your heart accelerates, instead of thinking that you are about to die, you can calm down thinking that it’s a symptom of anxiety that you can manage.
Sometimes, managing anxiety can be complicated, so it is necessary to ask for the professional help of a psychologist. Keep in mind that the earlier you receive treatment, the easier it will be to eliminate or even prevent secondary anxiety. Do not wait for the problem to start.
Perry, S. et. Al. (2019) Control of heart rate through guided high-rate breathing. Scientific Reports; 9: 1545.
Rogers, M. P. et. Al. (1999) Comparing primary and secondary generalized anxiety disorder in a long-term naturalistic study of anxiety disorders. Depress Anxiety; 10(1): 1-7.