How to Talk Yourself Down from an Anxiety Spiral

Because we’ve all been there and it sucks.

05.11.16
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Sometimes my brain feels a broken record, stuck on a loop of concerns that I’m supposed to have already resolved. I would call it mind-numbing if it weren’t actually the exact opposite.

I’d be smarter to call it anxiety — which it is — and if my social circles and internet circles are any indication, a lot of us get stuck in that same dizzy little boat.

So, in honor of our month of mental health, I talked to Dr. Susan Buchholz about ways we can help ourselves. A practicing clinical psychologist for 37 years before she retired in 2015, Dr. Buchholz spent the majority of her career specifically helping patients with anxiety.

She offered us several strategies for combatting mental spirals and the best part is they can all be done from the comfort (or discomfort) of our own brains.

Next time you feel yourself circling, see if one, some or all of these might help you straighten out.

1. Define what’s happening as anxiety.

Seems obvious, but according to Dr. Buchholz, one of the most important steps to getting a handle on anxiety is defining it as anxiety. Often, when we are on a downward mental spiral, we make the mistake of assuming our thoughts are completely rational.

But consider the rationality of dwelling on something you’ve already dwelled on at length in the past, you have no control over, or, worse yet, you have already come to a conclusion on. Add “at 3:00 a.m.” to any of those and we’re comfortably in the irrational camp.

Sure, it may bruise your ego, but recognizing your spiral as a product of anxiety rather than of intelligence or sensitivity or perceptiveness will help you to…

2. Distance yourself from your anxious thoughts.

Since spirals are not reflective of healthy thought-patterns, getting them at arm’s length ASAP will enable you to see them more objectively.

Dr. Buchholz suggests writing them down, vocalizing them to someone or even just speaking them out loud to the empty air around your face. Externalizing them will allow you to observe them rather than experience them.

Counter-intuitive realization of the day: you need distance to see things more clearly.

3. Break down the source of your anxiety into bite-size pieces.

This is a big one. Dr. Buchholz says she often turns to a rating system to help her patients put their anxiety into context.

Here’s how it works:

First, rate your coping skills on a scale of one to ten: one representing a complete inability to handle stress and a ten being an extremely high tolerance for it. Hold onto this number in the back of your head.

Next, rate the source of your anxiety on a similar scale, but from the perspective of how much stress it solicits: one being no stress at all and ten being an unbearable amount.

The first number represents your tolerance for stress, the second represents the intensity of stress your problem causes. Bear with me math-haters! We’re going to break this down more simply.

If the first number (tolerance) is higher than the second number (intensity), that should indicate you’re more than capable of handling this particular issue. Since an important ingredient of anxiety is shame and a perceived inability to handle a problem, this should soften the spiral.

If the first number (tolerance) is lower than the second number (intensity), break down the source of your anxiety into smaller challenges of lower intensity until your coping skills win over.

Let’s say you are getting married and the idea of planning a wedding is making you want to light yourself on fire. Maybe you cite your coping scales as a 7, but the wedding as a stress-inducing 10. Dr. Buccholz would have you break down the wedding into smaller tasks that come in lower than a 7. Finding a venue? 6. Picking a caterer? 4. Choosing flowers? 3.

Seems obvious, but the act of quantifying something as nebulous as anxiety is helpful. It puts distance between you and the source.

4. Practice mental discipline.

Sometimes, though, you might not feel equipped to assess your feelings logically. Sometimes it’s 3 a.m. again and you’re running through hypotheticals over and over in your head and you know, in spite of yourself, that it’s utterly useless.

In this scenario, Dr. Buchholz says you have to shut it down completely. Don’t allow your brain to engage. She calls this practicing mental discipline. Be willing to admit to yourself that sometimes avoiding the topic full-stop is more useful than picking it apart when you’re tired, frustrated, and not thinking clearly.

5. Learn how you think.

Dr. Buchholz says we’d be wise to recognize our brains as occasionally-faulty machines. Just because we’ve thought about something a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean it’s the right way.

If there is a particular scenario for you that consistently precedes anxiety, define it as a trigger and avoid it, or, if you can’t, mercilessly recognize it as such. A glitch that you prepare for, expect, and move past.

For example, if you find yourself berating your career choice — which you otherwise feel at peace with — every time you think about a certain person, recognize that as a mental trap or trigger for you. Think of your emotional response not as something worth pondering, but as a habit worth breaking.

6. Consider using external behaviors.

Where mental discipline fails, try your hand at physical actions. Some people snap a rubber band on their wrist every time they have an unhealthy urge. Others garden or go for a walk. A physical act is similar to journaling in that it distances you or your mental faculties, if only for a moment, from your anxiety.

Dr. Buchholz’ favorite brand of physical distraction is singing a stupid song. Out loud. To no one. Even in the middle of the night.

7. Build up your mind’s quiet-seeking muscles.

The ability to quiet your mind or even fully meditate during spirals is crucial, and Dr. Buchholz says practicing outside of the context of anxiety is the easiest way to get your brain there when you really need it. Like a muscle, your brain’s ability to slow down will serve you better if strengthened over time rather than only when under acute pressure.

Develop a consistent relaxation practice and your mind will develop the ability to transition between an anxious state and a quiet state — especially when you really need it.

If transcendental meditation isn’t your thing, find something that is: yoga, spirituality, coloring books, ASMR? There’s no reason you can’t carve our your own flavor of mental quiet time.

If you’re at a point where anxiety feels like a normal part of your mental practice, remind yourself that it doesn’t have to be. While stress is an important part of growth, spiraling isn’t, and there are ways to combat it with a little self-care.

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.

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