What You Can Do To Stop A Thought Spiral
Back pocket remedies when anxious thoughts begin to take over your body
I was six when I first felt anxiety in my body, and they’ve never left my body.
In these quiet moments, my thoughts spiral so swiftly that, for the majority of my life, I didn’t think I could stop them. I had lived with anxiety for so long that I didn’t know there were ways to approach it that would help me until my early 20’s — and it took me another ten years before I became proactive about finding techniques to help me spiral less, or to bring me back from them sooner and safer.
When I first decided to become solution-oriented about my anxiety, I had to keep a note in my phone about what I could do when I felt anxious because my mind would go blank. I couldn’t remember what I had read, or how I could help myself, so I couldn’t respond effectively.
The following are the three techniques I use regularly on their own and in combination with each other depending on what I am able to recall during a spell and/or what feels good and/or what works in that given moment.
What is important to note is that it is okay to not feel okay. You are strong and strong-willed and you are not alone. It is okay to ask questions, ask for help, seek guidance, and talk to your doctor.
It is okay to pause, take a deep inhale, and consider what is best for you. You are loved and you are needed. You can be solution-oriented about your self-care. Make yourself a priority.
List What You Know to be True
Years ago, a friend texted me the link to a Ted Talk that I cannot find. It wasn’t about anxiety, as far as I can recall, but the presenter told a story that included a coping mechanism her daughter used for an anxiety-induced thought-spiral.
The basic idea is that, when you find yourself in an anxious thought-spiral, you list very simple things you know to be true like your name, what day it is, when your birthday is, what colour pants you are wearing… These absolute truths help to ground us when we find ourself catastrophizing; when we feel like we have little or no grasp on the steering wheel. Honestly, they are distractions from our anxiety. Good distractions.
Because I am very stubborn, I was convinced this technique would not work for me, but because I am also very open, I eventually tried it — and it worked. I worked hard to remember it when my anxiety would manifest, failing to do so until I created a note in my phone to remind me. Jaunts on public transit, self-conscious moments hiding in the bathrooms at parties, self-speak before a meeting at work… Telling myself what I knew to be true really did help.
A few weeks later, I was in the back seat of my mom’s car that my partner and I borrowed to drive deep into the Saskatchewan badlands to camp at a dark-sky preserve during a meteor shower. Everything besides driving was new to me, and as we bumped over the rocky back roads, the cattle guards, and descended into the middle of what felt like nowhere without a cell signal, spare tire, or emergency transponder, I began to spiral.
“My name is Andrea,” I said over and over. “I’m wearing blue jeans. My name is Andrea. Andrea. My name is blue jeans.”
I was squinting, holding my breath, and grasping the door handle. I couldn’t think of any other truths. How could this technique, which helped me all these other times, be failing me right now? As I peered out the window at the landscape I want to see and remember as beautiful, I pulled out a pen and yanked a piece of paper from my notebook. I decided to write my truths.
My name is Andrea.
I am wearing blue jeans.
I would re-write and re-read these two truths until another truth poked itself into mind.
I am in Saskatchewan.
My partner is driving.
My partner is a good driver.
There are no cliffs here.
There were cliffs. I just didn’t know it at the time.
I listed everything I was wearing, seeing, and all the highways that we took to get there. I listed my favourite subjects in school, movies that made me laugh, and foods that made me happy. I wrote on both sides of the paper until it was completely covered. By the time I was done, I had filled my body with gratitude that managed to capture my attention more than all the unknowns fueling my anxiety moments ago.
If speaking to yourself doesn’t work, try writing and reading back to yourself. There’s a lot about you, factually, that is amazing. Trust me.
Breathing Through Your Nose
After years of practising, bouncing around from studio to studio, and focusing on strength and stretching, I found myself wholly invested in the hatha yoga classes of Sarah Brose at the little studio near my house because, in Sarah’s classes, I was learning how to breathe.
Sarah’s classes were both calming and calm. There, I practiced linking breath with movement.
“I am aware I am breathing in,” she would repeat while we’d inhale and moved our bodies as directed. “I am aware I am breathing out.”
Lying on our back on the floor with our hands on our bellies, I practiced inhaling through my nose with the goal of my belly rising into my palms, instead of my chest. I didn’t realize this but my shallow, often mouth-breathing rarely infiltrated my tummy space.
Sarah taught me that breathing into my belly scientifically works to calm the body’s central nervous system. It’s one the best things you can do for yourself to calm your body: close your mouth, inhale through your nose, and breathe into your belly. Use your hand as a guide if this is strange or you are unsure.
When I am feeling anxious, this technique can be very difficult at first, but I do my best and usually feel much better after 3–5 long inhales.
The third technique is one I learned through Headspace, a meditation app, in their “meditation for anxiety.”
Whenever an anxious thought arises, simply acknowledge that it is present. Visualize the anxious thought, and watch as it passes by you. Try not to suppress it, or pretend it isn’t there. It is important to give the thought space to exist on its own. The thought is not you.
Headspace likens this to imagining a feather falling lightly and tapping your shoulder ever so slightly. You imagine the anxious thought as the feather, and let it be. Let it float past you in the air. Let it carry on.
I use this technique when thoughts that often lead to spirals enter my mind. I use it during meditation and during workouts. I use it when I feel a judgement surface about myself or someone else. I use it when I find myself making excuses to do or not to do something.
I learned this technique using the Headspace free trial, and I now meditate with the Insight app. If you’re looking for a place to start, try either of these apps. One of my favourites is Sarah Blondin’s meditations on Insight, simple nature sounds for 10 minutes before bed.
It is important to remember that it is a brave and important step to taking care of your mental wellness. You are love and you are needed. Make yourself a priority.
A Handful of Mental Wellness Resources
Your Doctor / Addiction Guide / Anxiety Canada / Centre for Addiction & Mental Health / Depression & Bipolar Support / Kids Help Phone / Mental Health America / Mind Your Mind / Mood Disorders Society of Canada / Psychosis 101