Stopping downward spirals when you feel out of control

Do you know the feeling of a downward spiral? 

When you can feel yourself dropping deeper into an emotional abyss of your own personal hell-mix of feelings? Anxiety, depression, despair, shame, {add your un-favorite emotion here}…

If I charted the number of conversations that have been about downward spirals in the past week, it would show a serious upward trend, of the hockey stick variety.

Lots of folks have been going through hard times, even though many their lives are relatively stable. 

Winter, the holidays, the pandemic and all the rest can contribute to an internal instability, though, which can bring up old patterns.

This can be especially frustrating when you’ve been working hard on personal growth and taking care of yourself… 

It’s easy to fall into the mindset of “I’ve done AAALL this work and I STILL feel this way, it must not be working”.

I want to share with you what

What’s going on when you spiral

Let’s try some bullet points here…

  • We’re in an inherently stressful social and political environment. You also probably have some stressors in your personal and professional life. These things have a destabilizing effect and require extra energy to adapt to
  • You experience a stressful situation in your life (this might be subtle or a specific event)
  • A stress response is triggered and your body and brain go into danger mode. Hormones change the homeostasis of your body, usually resulting in greater reactivity and less access to higher levels of thinking
  • Your mind looks at that situation and makes it mean negative things (I failed, this isn’t good enough, I did something wrong”)
  • Which then connects to a larger negative belief system that you have from the past (“I’m a failure. I’m not good enough. I’m not important”)
  • Your brain then gets to work convincing you that those negative beliefs are true, finding all kinds of evidence to support it from your past. You find yourself reliving old memories and feelings. You might even relive old traumas.
  • This makes you feel even worse
  • Then, you start judging yourself for being in this state, which creates more shame (“I can’t believe I still feel this way. This is never going to change.”) 

The two main actions that lead to spiraling are:

  • Building your current stress into a bigger picture
  • Making your feelings means something much bigger than they are

How to stop spiraling

Basically, you want to pause the downward progress of the emotional spiral. Here are a few access points to make that happen:

#1 Take deep breaths

Your physical body is in a stress response. By breathing long and slowly, you can calm your nervous system. There are many ways to do this. Counting down from 10 is a simple approach.

#2 Recognize that your thoughts & feelings are momentary

They will feel VERY true in the moment. The things that your brain will tell you will seem absolute. The feelings will seem like forever (and scary). But they are not. 

Repeat to yourself “I am having a stress response. This is my stress response, it is not me.” 

#3 Avoid trying to solve problems or make decisions

When your stress response is activated, you don’t have access to the wiser part of yourself (which is who you DO want in the driver’s seat). 

Instead, take a break. Give yourself some downtime. Other people can wait. 

#4 Seek support

This might be in the form of conversations or self-care. Do nourishing activities that help you to feel more at peace, even if they aren’t directly related to the problem in question. By caring for yourself, you’ll help to calm your reactivity to stress and fortify your inner foundation.

I hope this information supports you to feel less overwhelmed by waves of emotions.

What else have you found helpful when you’re spiraling?

Wishing you calm amidst the storm.

P.S. Emotions are part of being human. Learning to manage them is a powerful skill that can have a huge impact on how you show up in your life. 

Emotional skills are foundational to the work I do with my clients. This looks like providing support, guidance and coaching so that you’re more resourced to handle the stressors of your life – and, as a result, feel more confident, empowered and at peace.