Mental Health October: Spiraling

One bad mental habit that I often fall into accidentally is spiraling.

You know the like: if I don’t finish this problem set, then I won’t understand the material, and if I don’t know the material, I’ll fail the exam, and if I fail the exam, I’ll fail the class, and if I fail the class, I’ll fail out of school, and if I fail out of school, I’ll be saddled with thousands of dollars of debt without an degree, blah blah blah…

This habit can become very stressful very quickly, and is almost never productive or useful. It’s truly just a waste of time and energy!

As hard as I try, I can’t stop my spiraling thoughts entirely – but I can become more aware of when they pop up and work hard to fend them off. I’ve learned some of these tactics in therapy, and tried others based off of my own research on the internet – read about them below!

Mentally Stepping Away

I wanted to mention this first because, while it seems the most obvious, it frankly doesn’t always work. For me, it depends heavily on what the thoughts are, and how far they can realistically spiral down.

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For example, the other night I lay in bed, trying to sleep but worried about going home for the holidays. What if Covid infection numbers go up? Would I have to cancel? What if someone gets sick? What if politics come up? What if? What if?

After a bit, I mentally stepped away from my thoughts. The holidays are more than a month away! Why worry about them now? How would I know what the numbers will be like then? Why can’t I just set boundaries around political talk before going? What’s the point of worrying about it now? It took a few tries, but I was eventually able to stop dwelling on these hypotheticals and finally clearing my mind for sleep.

I’ll repeat – this doesn’t always work! I also credit my meditation practice for allowing me to consciously step away from my spiraling thoughts in the first place. While it was relatively simple to reason a “way out” of this specific spiral, there are often times when it feels like my brain will never stop asking, “what if…,” or “and then…,” and it’s even harder to escape. I do, however, always try this as an initial step.

Art

Above all else, art simply gives me something else to focus on when my thoughts feel uncontrollable.

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I mentioned in a previous post about journaling that I briefly kept a mantra journal. When I could feel myself slipping into a familiar spiral, I’d come up with a mantra to help pull myself out, and write it over and over again in my journal.

Honestly, however, I will admit that writing mantras doesn’t always work for me. By the end of a full page of one mantra, my arm is usually cramped and my mind is still fixated on whatever was stressing me out in the first place. Writing a phrase that is meant to take your mind off of something tends to keep that things on your mind, who knew? Nevertheless, I did want to mention it here in case someone else is struggling and is inspired to give it a try!

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My therapist, who specialized in art therapy, also recommended drawing and doodling as a way to distract myself from distressing thoughts. I tried drawing mandalas, which had soothing, repetitive patterns, as well as random scribbles, which gave my mind something additional to think about when processing otherwise stressful feelings.

I drew a lot in our sessions and found them very helpful when talking to my therapist specifically, but haven’t found a way to incorporate this practice into my everyday life. I’m not immediately sure why! However, like mantra journaling above, I want to present it here as a coping technique to anyone else who may be struggling.

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The one art form that has been consistently helpful for getting my mind of spiraling thoughts has been macrame! As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve found that it’s difficult to think of anything else when trying to keep track of all of your threads while tying pretty knots! The process of creating a new macrame creation is time-consuming and very involved, so I don’t do it often, but it’s my favorite hobby to take up when I need to find peace.

Therapist Recommendations

I’ve mentioned my tendency to spiral to my therapist, who provided many great recommendations for re-grounding myself when this happens.

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My favorite of these was the “5 senses” practice. She brought me outside on a chilly morning, asked me to take 3 deep inhales and exhales, then asked me to name, out loud, 5 things that I could see, 4 things that I could hear, 3 things that I could feel, 2 things that I could smell, and 1 thing that I could taste (or some variation – I frequently mix up the order, but it’s the thought that counts!). In between each sense, she asked me to take three breaths again. By the end of the exercise, I forgot what we were talking about to prompt us to go outside in the first place!

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In the same vein, we also practiced walking mindfulness techniques. These were incredibly simple but powerful in taking my mind away from my spiraling thoughts. The one that stuck with me the most was simply making a conscious effort to lift up one, or both, feet while walking. For example, feeling each part of the sole of the foot as it lifts from, then touches back down on, the ground, or simply thinking “right foot, left foot” every time you lift up the corresponding foot.

Finally, she also recommended additional techniques, like tapping my fingers together (not EFT tapping, which I don’t know anything about) and breathwork exercises. I feel like these have become subconscious coping mechanisms at this point – I am the type of person to sigh heavily when things feel heavy, sorry not sorry! – so I would recommend consciously trying these out if you are looking for new techniques to try.

Like other meditation and mindfulness practices that I’ve talked about previously, the key to these techniques is to make them habits, for both good times and bad, so that they can be more easily accessed when times get rough.

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