Worry, fear, stress, even a little anxiety – all these are part of being human.
Whether you are concerned about your child’s behavior, coping with a toxic boss, or thinking about a big bill that’s almost due, everyday life has a way of testing us.
Sometimes, though, it all seems to get out of hand. Normal worries feel like insurmountable problems. Negative thought patterns set in. You start to feel breathless, panicky, and frightened. This makes it even worse, and suddenly you’re in a sea of anxiety spiraling out of control.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s explore what’s really going on and how to stop an anxiety spiral before it occurs.
What is an anxiety spiral?
The mind and body are irrevocably linked.
Negative thought patterns lead to negative emotions, such as fear and shame, that build up over time. The amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates the fight-or-flight response, is ‘tricked’ into the belief that you are in terrible danger, when – in reality – you are not; it is just your thoughts!
Even so, the brain triggers your nervous system to react as if you were in mortal danger, leading to physical symptoms, like breathlessness, sweating, stomach pain, and irritability. These only make you feel worse and more anxious (“Maybe there is something wrong with me??”). The increased anxiety ramps up the nervous system even more, which makes you more anxious – and the anxiety spiral has begun.
How the anxiety spiral starts
But what triggers an anxiety spiral? Although the specific reason is different for everyone, an anxiety spiral is usually triggered by an event that is perceived as stressful, frightening, or shameful to the individual.
For example, a university student is feeling very stressed about an upcoming exam. She needs a certain grade to up her average but she is not certain at all that she can achieve it. The night before the exam, she realizes she is underprepared. After weeks of rumination and worry, the anxious thoughts suddenly become overwhelming. This is the start of the anxiety spiral.
Any stress-provoking event or situation can cause an anxiety spiral, but it’s important to note that an anxiety spiral doesn’t usually just appear out of nowhere. Typically the individual has been experiencing negative thought patterns and chronic anxiety for some time, so the mind and body are already primed for the anxiety loop.
How to know you’re in an anxiety spiral
An anxiety spiral is hard to miss! It feels very overwhelming and becomes worse in a relatively short time. As the anxiety spiral intensifies, the feelings of fear, stress, and even panic become more intense, not less, as the minutes or hours pass.
An anxiety spiral comes with a range of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms that are quite different from the normal response to worry and stress. These can include:
- Feeling breathless
- Feelings of panic or panic attack-like symptoms
- Intense negative thoughts or negative self-talk
- Headache, stomach pains
- Feeling of helplessness
- Feeling like your emotions are out of control
- Nervous symptoms, such as trembling hands, eye twitch or restlessness
5 steps to stop an anxiety spiral
During an anxiety spiral, it feels as if your whole body and mind have been hijacked! But that is just a feeling. Anxiety is actually a cognitive state, in which the brain triggers emotions and physiological symptoms. While those can be very frightening, they are not dangerous and can be controlled with mind-body awareness and behavioral changes.
Here are 5 simple steps you can take to stop an anxiety spiral in its tracks:
1. Check in with your thoughts
Most of our thinking happens without our even noticing. If you are in an anxiety spiral, you are likely engaging in negative thinking. Take a moment to stop and pay attention to what you are saying to yourself. You might be surprised at how defeatist you sound! So check in to your thoughts and see how you can change them to be supportive and calm.
2. Come back to the present moment
Anxiety is rarely about what’s happening right now. It is usually based on shame about things that happened in the past or fear of what might happen in the future.
A good way to stop an anxiety spiral is by bringing yourself back to the present moment. Go outside and walk barefoot in the grass. Concentrate on how it feels, or the warmth of the sun on your skin. Drink a cup of chamomile tea and focus on the sensation of each sip. These are examples of quick techniques to come back to the present moment.
3. Practice deep breathing
Many of the physical symptoms of an anxiety spiral come from the rapid, shallow breathing that is typical of the anxious response. Breathing this way increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, and leads to rapid heartbeat, dizziness and other uncomfortable symptoms.
A surefire way to stop anxiety from spiraling out of control is to practice deep, slow breathing, particularly focusing on a long, slow exhalation. The calming effects only take a couple of minutes.
4. Focus elsewhere
Once you have slowed the anxiety spiral by checking your thoughts and slowing your breathing, it’s time to shift your focus onto something positive and uplifting. Think about something you are grateful for, start a new task, or read a hopeful news article. In essence, you are ‘taking your mind off’ the anxiety trigger, which will help remove you from the spiral.
5. Make a conscious decision to put aside the worrying
In this calmer frame of mind, you can also make an active choice to put aside your worry, and deal with it another time. When you are spiraling with anxiety, it is not a good time to deal with problems anyway. Make a note for yourself to come back to the issue later when you are in a calm, non-triggered state.
5 habits to prevent anxiety spirals
There is a lot of buildup to an anxiety spiral, meaning that it doesn’t just happen. It usually comes on the heels of an already heightened anxious state, which may have been going on for quite some time. That’s why you can actually prevent anxiety spirals, by avoiding chronic anxiety in the first place.
Here are 5 daily habits that can prevent the onset of anxiety spirals for good:
1. Meditation with biofeedback
Meditation is an ancient Eastern practice to recenter your thoughts and bring you back to the moment. In modern Western culture, there are tools and techniques to help you meditate better and calm your anxiety responses more quickly and effectively. One of those is biofeedback.
With the Reflect biofeedback device, you can track your physiological responses to meditation and sharpen your practice to prevent anxiety spirals. Plus, Reflect is so easy to use. You don’t need to connect to any special sensors or equipment. Simply place your hands on the orb and start getting results.
2. Regular exercise
Stress is a form of energy that accumulates in your body. That’s why your muscles tense up and become sore when you are stressed. Besides being great for your physical health, exercising regularly helps release pent up nervous energy, so it doesn’t build up and become overwhelming.
3. Support your nervous system in healthy ways
Like every other system in your body, the health of your nervous system is very important. Eating a healthy diet and sleeping well are critical. Avoiding anxiety triggers, such as alcohol, sugar, as well as toxic people and situations are also important.
Another way to strengthen your nervous system is by taking care of your mental health, by journaling, creating meaningful experiences and even consulting a therapist if you need extra support.
4. Pay attention to your breathing
We mostly pay no attention to our breathing, but there are right and wrong ways to breathe. Deep, relaxed breathing is calming and beneficial while shallow, fast breathing is not. Start paying attention to your breathing on a regular basis, and take up breathwork practice to train yourself to breathe slowly and deeply through your nose.
5. Reduce your ANTs
Like breathing, we don’t pay a lot of attention to our thoughts either. Yet ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) are a key trigger for anxiety. ANTs happen on a subconscious level, so they creep up without even noticing.
To control or even stop ANTs, the first step is to become aware of them. Then you can make the conscious effort to break down the negative thought and assess whether it is really justified or even true. In most cases, you’ll find it’s not. Then you can let it go.
Stop anxiety spirals now
Anxiety spirals can be overwhelming and even debilitating, but there are ways to stop them in their tracks. By following the 5 SOS hacks above, you can control your spiraling while it’s happening. And, by adopting some simple lifestyle habits, you can prevent anxiety spirals from happening at all. That’s the key to a calmer, more empowered, and spiral-free life.