Anxiety Addiction and Crisis-Dependent Function

How we hold ourselves back by needing anxiety to function.

Grant H Brenner


Photo Credit: Grant H Brenner

At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.

- Samuel Shem, MD, House of God

What is “anxiety-dependent functioning”?

For many years now, I’ve been thinking about the idea of “anxiety-dependent functioning” and using the concept in clinical and organizational settings. People get it right away. People also like the term “crisis dependent functioning”, for contexts in which the stakes are experienced as higher, and seems there is with impending disaster.

It’s a simple yet powerful notion: people develop the need to get highly activated in order to perform basic functions, and that sustained activation while adaptive at first leads to impairment. Sustained stress has been clearly shown to impair cognition and lead to changes in brain structure and function (Shalev, Gilboa & Rasmusson, 2011). Crisis mode is short-term solution which unconsciously becomes deployed as a routine, long-term solution. Anxiety dependence becomes a self-sustaining dysfunctional system, similar to an addiction. Somehow diminishing returns and bad outcomes aren’t enough to get us to change our ways, at least not until something really terrible happens. It leads to burnout, and is a common maladaptive pattern of self- motivation, one which depends on denial rather than self-awareness.

Furthermore, the anxiety which becomes necessary to function moment-to-moment reduces the ability to fully appreciate what is happening, leading to multiple a cascade of problems as hasty efforts to put out fires spreads sparks which create new ones, and so on.

As a result, perception of the situation and involved people (including oneself) is distorted, decisions are rushed and based on incomplete and inaccurate information, actions, therefore, do not have the desired impact.

Learning from experience is also impaired in anxiety-dependent functioning. This is because self-appraisal and corrective action are also adversely affected by anxiety, worsening the problem and re-enforcing misconceptions about oneself, others, and how to approach similar situations next time. Learning doesn’t happen right…



Grant H Brenner

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer