What Is an Anxiety Flare-Up? and How to Handle It
An anxiety flare-up is an unexpected return of anxiety after you thought you had worked through it. Anxiety never fully disappears from anyone's life, but you may have been sailing through your life, unburdened by constant anxious thoughts and feelings and doing things you want to do, when seemingly out of the blue, anxiety jumps into your path and tries to control you again. Despite how it may feel, it's not a sign that you're doomed to a life of high anxiety. When you gain a broader perspective on what an anxiety flare-up is, you can take steps to handle it and move forward again.
What an Anxiety Flare-Up Is (and Is Not)
A flare-up of anxiety is a temporary re-experiencing of old patterns of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving influenced by worries, what-ifs, and fears. Anxiety sometimes surges suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, while other times, you might begin to notice that you're feeling increasingly anxious over the course of several days or even weeks. Strategies that you've been using to manage your anxiety may seem to be ineffective. Try as you might to keep it in check, anxiety seems to be gaining the upper hand in your life once again.
To begin feeling anxious and having life-limiting anxious thoughts again can be frustrating, discouraging, and disheartening. It can feel like all your hard work to reduce anxiety and manage it well has gone out the window, and you're back to square one.
Experiencing a flare-up can even cause more anxiety because it spins you in a loop: You feel anxiety returning, and you don't want it to happen, so you think about it a lot. Overthinking the return of anxiety keeps you focused on anxiety, which is unsettling and makes you notice your anxiety even more. The negative loop feeds on itself and fuels more anxiety until you're afraid you're destined to be anxious and miserable for life.
Anxiety flare-ups are normal. They happen because anxiety itself, even when managed well, never fully goes away. Anxiety is a natural part of being human, and it does serve a positive purpose. It can keep us motivated, and it's a sign that we care about someone or something. For example, worrying about making mistakes and losing a job can keep you performing your best and is a sign that you value your job (whether that's the job itself or the income it brings so you can care for yourself and do things you want to do). Ordinary worries and fears can be protective. It is impossible to live a life completely free from anxiety, which means that sometimes it can intensify.
For peace of mind, it can be helpful to know what an anxiety surge is not. A return of anxiety isn't:
- A sign of personal weakness
- Proof that you can't handle your life
- A signal that you're doomed to forever have high anxiety
Anxiety may be trying to take over again, but just like you've done before, you can put it in its proper place (a decent distance from you and your life).
How to Handle an Anxiety Flare-Up
Just like before, you are not your anxiety. Anxiety is something you are experiencing, and therefore it is something that you can step back and actively address. Anxiety is stubborn, as you already know, so it may be challenging, but it is possible to douse the flare-up and walk away. Try these tips:
- Apply mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of living life that involves focusing on what is happening right now, no matter what is actually happening, rather than being stuck in thoughts of the past or the future. When anxiety flares, prevent it from spiraling out of control by focusing on this flare. Catch yourself thinking about how much anxiety used to ruin your life or worrying about how it might hang on and on, and then return your attention to this particular anxiety and how you want to address it.
- Break it apart. Study your returned anxiety objectively, and look for patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Broaden your attention and consider what else is happening in your life that might be contributing to anxiety right now. Are you under extra stress? Are you sleep-deprived? Are you ill? Are you out of your ordinary routine? Are you not caring for yourself because you're busy? Identify small things you can do to address any current stressors in order to reduce your renewed anxiety.
- Broaden your perspective. When it returns, anxiety has a way of dominating your attention. In addition to looking for contributing factors to address, pause several times each day to notice what else is happening in your life besides this annoying flare-up. What is going well? What brings you joy? Build these things up rather than getting stuck exclusively trying to take anxiety back down.
- Think about worked well before. While focusing on the present is important, looking back to identify things you did earlier to help your anxiety can remind you of what to try again. How can you adjust old strategies to fit this new surge of anxiety?
An anxiety flare-up doesn't mean a permanent return of the anxiety you thought you already defeated. You did overcome it, and you moved forward. You haven't regressed. Your progress is still there. You've already proven that you can reduce anxiety, so remind yourself of your incredible strength and ability as you do it again.
Peterson, T. (2021, July 29). What Is an Anxiety Flare-Up? and How to Handle It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, June 8 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2021/7/what-is-an-anxiety-flare-up-and-how-to-handle-it
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS
Thank you for this article. I have literally searched for so long today online re anxiety flare ups (which I’m having at the moment) and there is so little that I could find until here.
I’m trying very hard (as you say sometimes our “usual” box of tools just don’t work during a flare up and I’m trying to stay in the moment as best I can as this is a bomb of a flare up that’s really impacting me so badly. Thanks again.