Ever feel yourself ~going down the rabbit hole~? Try these strategies to stop yourself from spiraling and quiet your anxiety.
A "thought spiral" occurs when one concern triggers a chain of negative thoughts that keeps going until you become overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, or stress.
We all worry; it's a normal human reaction. But sometimes, one worrisome thought turns into a never-ending stream of scary "what-ifs" until we've spiraled into a very negative mental state. "Thought spirals often happen because we're thinking so fast and so anxiously that we don't stop to critically examine our thinking and ask ourselves whether our thoughts are rational or realistic," Lynn Bufka, PhD, licensed psychologist and associate executive director for practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association, tells BuzzFeed Health.
"In the long-term, the best way to really break this pattern of thinking is to recognize a spiral when it starts and critique each anxious thought, then come up with more reasonable alternatives or outcomes," Bufka says. But replacing anxiety with rationality isn't always easy to do, especially if you're already feeling super anxious. Fortunately, there are also some short-term solutions to distract yourself and get outside of your thoughts before you've spiraled into a negative mental state.
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Of course, everyone is different and these strategies might not work for everyone. If your thought spirals are frequent and debilitating, or they are related to an underlying anxiety or mood disorder, you may need to see a mental health professional to explore different treatment options. But in the meantime, here are some tricks, tips, and hacks you can try the next time you're spiraling.
Ask yourself what you would tell a friend who came to you with the same concerns.
"I do my best to remove my biases from the situation and talk to myself as if I were my best friend. My best friend makes a mistake at work? It happens to everyone! You're doing your best and your coworkers/boss/clients know that! It has gotten me through a ton."
"Sometimes it really helps to think, 'What would I say to a friend who came to me with these same anxious thoughts?' because we tend to be more objective and realistic about other people's lives than our own," Bufka says.
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Start a detail-oriented task, like painting your nails.
"I paint my nails or reorganize my closet to get my mind to focus elsewhere."
Create a photo album on your phone of your favorite pictures and memes, and break it out when you feel yourself spiraling.
"I have an entire album on my cellphone called 'Feeling Sad.' It's nothing but cute pictures of my pets, funny pictures of friends and family, memes, and pretty landscapes. Looking at it distracts me as I remember what was happening when I took the pictures."
Put on a song that always makes you feel happy or relaxed.
"A good method is listening to music. If you concentrate on the lyrics, you don't have time to think. This helps me deal with my anxiety."
Author's tip: When you aren't spiraling, try making a playlist of these feel-good songs so that you'll have it ready for the next time you need a distraction.
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Jot down a list of things you are grateful for, or even just good things that have happened to you recently.
"I like to start making a list of things I'm grateful for. And they don't all have to be big things, they can just be a little conveniences. I'm grateful that Chick-fil-A has waffle fries. I'm grateful that my dog is always happy to see me. I'm grateful that my husband loves me. I'm grateful that I have clean socks today. It always seems to put things in perspective for me. And by the time I'm done with the list, I realize how lucky I am."
Scream into a pillow.
"I scream into a pillow for about ten seconds to try to get the thought to stop and then immediately do something to distract my mind, like pick up a book, turn on the news, or even play a puzzle game on my phone."
Write your anxious thoughts down.
"Try breaking down the thought spiral by writing out each individual thought that led you there which can help you realize that you're thinking isn't realistic," Bufka says. If it's a recurring thought spiral, she suggests writing down the rational or most likely outcomes for each thought, and keeping it on a notecard or piece of paper so you can pull it out next time you spiral.
Ask yourself a few basic questions that can help you calm down and focus on the present.
"I also find myself talking it out, and I'll ask myself questions out loud, like, 'Why am I spun up on this? What's really bothering me?' I've found that by asking those questions out loud, it's like I'm being interviewed, and it's easier for me to find the answer and get to the root of what's getting me low."
"Checking in with yourself and asking a few questions can help you think more rationally and slow down the racing thoughts," Bufka says.
Fill in the pages of a coloring book.
"I break out the colored pencils and pick a book (my girlfriend has gotten me tons of cool ones). Focusing on coloring stops me from thinking about anything else. I get absorbed in it."
Hop on an app, like Headspace or What's Up?. They can help you slow down and focus on the present.
"Headspace has rescued me in the past year. I used to believe that if I thought out all of the possible bad scenarios, then I would be more prepared when they happened. Headspace has trained my brain to hear an anxious thought and check myself by saying, "What good is this doing me?" I'd realize 'none,' and stop before I got too far down the rabbit hole of my brain."
"I use this app called What's Up? (Not whatsapp). It has exercises to help get you back in the moment. You can also journal on there."
Check out more apps for anxiety here.
Try to sleep it off.
"I usually start getting into these traps in the evenings when I'm really tired, so sleeping is usually the best way for me to feel better and more rational. Never underestimate the power of rest."
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Recite a mantra that will actually calm you down.
"I use this mantra: "You're on the feedback loop from hell. Recognize and reverse." I learned it from the book The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck. Excellent read for anyone who needs support in confidence and reassurances."
Click here for more motivational quotes.
Try working out to get rid of the anxious energy.
"I force myself to exercise. I go for a run or to my boxing class. It's a real act of will because anxiety makes me want to withdraw and isolate, but that just feeds it. I have spiraled into paralyzing anxiety and depression lasting weeks, so now I force myself to stick to my workout program. When I'm exhausted and sweaty and feeling proud of myself, my anxiety becomes a small problem that I can handle."
Do a guided stretch routine.
"I do a short stretch routine that helps me relax my neck, my spine, and actually stretches almost every part of my body. Paying exclusive attention to areas of your body can actually make you forget, at least for a while, about those things that bug you. It also gives you a sense of presence that is otherwise really difficult to reach when you're overthinking."
Put an ice pack on the back of your neck or try sticking your face in a bowl of ice water.
"I learned about ice diving this past summer while I was hospitalized, and I love it. I use it when I get really anxious and can't get out of my thoughts. All you need is a bowl big enough to put your face in, cold water, and ice. It makes you focus on only feeling cold. I love it."
"I submerge my face in ice cold water for thirty seconds. I do this because it results in immediate relief; it lowers my heart rate and has a calming effect. It's essentially like hitting a reset button. An ice pack can accomplish the same thing when submersion isn't an option."
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Use a grounding technique, like counting things around you or noticing how each part of your body feels.
"Grounding techniques can get you out of your head. Here are a few of my favorites:
• 5,4,3,2,1: Count 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. This brings your awareness back to the present and gets you out of your head.
• A body scan: Notice each part of your body and how it feels, starting with your feet and go up. I like to tense up each body part and release it as I go up my body. (This helps relax your muscles.) Doing body scans brings your attention to how your body feels, which will get you out of your head."
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Tell your anxiety to shut up, and then change the subject.
"Sometimes it takes yelling STOP to myself (in my head) to stop the train, and then I pick something to concentrate on like a song that's playing. It's not easy to do at first, but with practice it becomes easier."
"I literally tell my brain to shut up. If I'm alone I will say out loud, and in a fairly snippy tone of voice, 'Brain, this is not the time. Shut the hell up, I don't need this.' It didn't start out effective but it works for me now."
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Pick up a book that you can get lost in.
"After 20 years of dealing with anxiety and spiraling thoughts I finally found that nothing is better than escaping into a different world, a different life, problems that are not mine, and happiness and sadness that isn't mine. I just just grab a book and completely immerse myself in a life that isn't my own."
Focus on an object and repeat its name.
"If I catch it in the very early stages, I will repeat 'banana' in my head and focus on the image of a banana."
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Start knitting or crocheting.
"I knit as a form of meditation. Usually does the trick."
Watch a guided meditation video.
"I watch ASMR or guided meditation videos on YouTube when I feel like I'm spiraling. Focusing on someone else talking makes the thoughts go away eventually."
Get outside and focus on the ~nature~ around you.
"It can help to remove yourself from the physical environment where you're having a thought spiral and go to a place that you don't associate with being stressed or anxious," says Bufka. So try to get up and move from ~your spot~ —whether that's your bed, couch, desk, etc. — and take a walk outside.
Do a simple breathing exercise.
"To stop myself from spiraling I always first tell myself to breathe. Then I remind myself that no matter how bad I feel right now, tomorrow is a brand new day and it will come with brand new reasons to be happy. Then I breathe again and try to forget about what had me triggered."
"If I'm in public, I'll do some breathing exercises (take a deep belly breath through the nose, count 1-2-3, breath out through mouth and repeat) till I calm down and am able to deal with it later."
Watch an episode of your favorite "comfort show."
"Netflix has helped so much. I'll put a series like The Office on in the background while I do other things, and listening to it quiets my mind and distracts me for long enough to stop the panic from taking over."
"I open Netflix or Hulu and binge watch a couple of episodes of my comfort show, Gossip Girl."
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If you can, tell a trusted friend or family member about your anxious thoughts.
"When I start spiraling, I force myself to talk to someone. Whether it's my boyfriend or best friend, hearing what I'm thinking out loud makes me realize how illogical I'm being. Keeping your anxieties bottled up inside your head only makes it worse."
"If you can't examine your own thoughts, you can bring in a trusted friend or family member and tell them your worry; they might provide a more objective, rational perspective. If you have someone who can help you get out of your spirals and support you, that’s great," Bufka says.
Take a hot shower.
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In the long-term, you may want to think about if there are any specific situations or people who seem to trigger your spirals, and consider removing yourself from them.
"You may need to sit and ask yourself these questions: Are there situations or people that aren’t good for me and tend to trigger these spirals? Do I need to set boundaries or maybe cut people off? How can I put myself in a place where I’m better able to deal with ups or downs of life?" Bufka says. This may mean spending less time with certain people, changing some habits, or figuring out how you can set boundaries so things don't get to you.
"Make sure you're getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, and exercising regularly — keeping yourself physically and mentally healthy will make you better equipped to deal with spirals when they happen," Bufka says.
And finally, if your thought spirals are debilitating or you are worried about your mental health, you might want to seek help from a professional.
And if you need to talk to someone immediately, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.
Follow along at BuzzFeed.com/MentalHealthWeek from Oct. 2 to Oct. 8, 2017.
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