Managing anxiety: taming the emergency cycle

Anxiety can be caused by an overactive internal alarm system. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce its effects.

What is an emergency?  I guess it is a negative event which, when it arises, demands that one or more people drop whatever they are doing, and attend to it exclusively.  Typical emergencies include events that threaten our physical or emotional health.

The word ’emergency’ has its root in old words meaning ‘arise’ or ‘come to light’.  Usually, an emergency has a flavour of the unexpected.  Therefore, we drop our usual routines, and are willing to change our lives until the emergency has passed.


Anxiety has developed in the animal nervous system as an alarm for emergencies.  The function of an alarm is to alert us when an event happens that suddenly needs our attention.  The anxiety alarm is necessarily disruptive – it is designed to interrupt whatever we are doing, and give us a feeling of ‘Something is wrong.  I need to do something to avert danger.’


Sometimes our alarm trigger becomes too sensitive, and the bell rings even when there is nothing to worry about.  (This is sometimes labelled free-floating anxiety.)  Some of us are born with sensitive alarms, and some of us develop them as a result of traumas during our lifetime.  This means that we can experience the feeling that something is wrong, even when it’s not true.

When our false alarms ring, we can jump into a reactive state, telling ourselves and everyone else: ‘Stop what you’re doing!  I have an emergency!’  Because we are experiencing such feelings of discomfort, we honestly believe that an emergency is happening.  In a sense, we become the emergency, and our anxiety and panic becomes the centre of everyone’s attention.


At some time after the false alarm, things return to normal.  We may have sought reassurance from others, and been ‘talked down’ from our extreme level of alert.  Time may pass, and the body returns to a less anxious state.  The ‘alertness hormones’ may run out, and we drift off to sleep, exhausted.


Once our inner chemistry has flattened, and the emergency in our minds has subsided, we can feel disappointed by life, as though all excitement has gone.  Perhaps those who were helping us have gone away, leaving us alone and lonely.  We feel depressed for a while.

We may then begin to feel that the loneliness-and-depression, in itself, is a kind of emergency.  Important jobs may fail to be done, and therefore we fall into debt, or fall out with friends, or neglect our health.  In this way, more and more evidence of ‘things going wrong’ will appear, and sooner or later, one of them will appear to us as another emergency, and trigger a further alarm.  Yet again, we begin the alarm cycle described above.


We can all recognise the above cycle, because we all do it.  We all have things we are sensitive about, and we experience periods of time when our peace is severely disrupted.  We can feel a victim to a never-ending chain of disturbance.  I work all the time with people suffering the effects of an emergency cycle in their minds.

What are the alternatives to being the victim of a hypersensitive alarm system?


To avoid ‘alarm disorder’ the US military has a DEFCON (Defense Readiness Condition) system of official alert states.  (You can read about it here.)  It ranges from 1 (maximum readiness) to 5 (normal readiness).  It seeks to organise their response to events.

In the same way, we can develop a system of conscious readiness, to replace our old alarm patterns.  If we experience an apparent disruption, we can take time to ask ourselves what is really happening.  Once we have ascertained what is happening, we can assess what level of readiness is appropriate.  This more measured process can calm down our more primitive alarm reaction.

We can use conversations with friends to reprioritise.  Or we can write lists, if we prefer, and systematise our actions that way.  Either way, it adds a logic to our responses, and stops anxiety getting too big a hold.  We convert disorganised anxiety into organised readiness.


The 1983 film WarGames explores the idea of the no-win scenario, and I recommend it for a bit of thoughtful light relief.   There is also the science of game theory, in which no-win situations play a part.

Anxiety often creates no-win situations in the form of relational disharmony.  We get anxious… we lose our perspective… we say and do things for our short-term defence… we fall out with others… we all end up worse off than before.  Essentially, we ‘shoot ourselves in the foot’.  The result is embarrassment, loneliness and suffering.

Many meditations are designed to prevent us from leaping to our own defence in this non-productive way.  One is the idea of ‘exchanging self and others’, in which we learn to reduce our own selfishness, and consider others as more, or at least equally, important.  (You can read and hear a discussion of this by Thubten Chodron here.  Or you can follow a guided meditation on exchanging yourself with others, by Scott Snibbe, on the site ‘A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment’, here.)

Success in this kind of meditation helps us develop happiness and reduce anxiety.  This is because it eliminates the excessively self-defending actions  that spoil our relationships with others, and also cause internal disturbance in their own right.  For example, think of anger, and the damage it can cause.


We all experience an ’emergency cycle’, in which we get over-anxious for a time, and then later suffer a lonely, depressed reaction.

To reduce the possibility of this, we can:

  1. Use conversation with friends, or written priority lists, to organise our responses  to events
  2. Learn, through reflection and meditation, to soften our excessive self-defensiveness