Have you ever found yourself experiencing a flurry of worries, one terrible thought leading to the next? In this blog post I will share 3 techniques you can use to cope with spiralling thoughts.
Anxiety spirals usually begin with a specific worry but can quickly escalate to a point where we feel overwhelmed or even paralyzed. These thoughts often concern the future and usually predict a negative outcome. You might ask yourself: "Why does my mind always go to the worst case scenario?". Anxiety is often accompanied by a pervasive feeling that "something terrible is going to happen", and a significant factor that fuels this fear is underestimating our ability to cope. If we do not have confidence that we can cope, it makes sense that we try our very best to prevent situations that would test our capacity to cope. Though this approach may work at times, you have probably experienced your share of frustration when life reminds you that you do not have complete control over what happens in the future.
Another factor that fuels catastrophic thinking is our need for certainty. Anxiety is often triggered by situations or events that are characterized by uncertainty. This desire for certainty can mean for some a preference to know a negative thing for sure than to remain in a state of "not knowing". It is important to remember that this is a very understandable human need, yet catastrophizing can leave us feeling constantly on edge and fearful.
1. Interrupt your spiralling thoughts by practicing mindfulness
Whether you have just noticed worry related thoughts or you have spent the last 15 minutes imagining those worst case scenarios, PAUSE, and reconnect with your body and surroundings. Practice your choice of mindfulness: this can be mindful breathing (counting your in and out breath for 5 cycles), mindfulness of your surroundings, or mindfully listening to music.
2. Taking stock of your resilience and ability to cope
Think back to situations, events or periods of your life when you did cope with adversity and uncertainty or simply difficult situations that you successfully dealt with. It's important to be self-compassionate as you do this and to avoid the inclination to "discount the positive" or to minimize what it took to cope (e.g. "Other people have it worse" or "I had no choice but to cope, I didn't do anything remarkable"). Be kind to yourself. Don't minimize past successes no matter how small.
3. Return to your original source of anxiety and be the judge
Write down the source of your worry. Ask yourself: "What is the worst that could happen?" and "How would I cope if the worst did happen?". By diving into the heart of our fear, we engage in "imaginal exposure" which is a powerful way to confront our fears. It is important to now ask yourself: "Is this a challenge I can do something about now or in the future?". This helps us to distinguish between worries that are solvable or unsolvable (hypothetical worries).