What Thought Spiraling Looks Like.
A series of spiraling thoughts like this might be familiar to a lot of you: I’m going to fail this test. When I fail the test, I’ll fail the class. When I fail the class, I’ll have to drop out of school. After I drop out of school, my parents will disown me. When my parents disown me, I’ll be alone for the rest of my life. I’m an idiot and when I fail this test I’m going to be alone whenever. I never do anything right.
Alright, I may have exaggerated the speed of the thought process a bit, but many of us are familiar with some form or another of our negative thoughts spiraling out of control. Before long, we end up with outlandish claims about ourselves, stress, and a feeling of impending doom. When we look back at these events later, we usually see them as overblown, but what’s going on here?
How Negative Thought Spiraling Starts.
It usually starts with one problem or negative thought that’s relatively tame. Something like I don’t think I’m prepared for this test. This is the pivotal moment where spiraling can start. That brief moment of uncertainty opens the doorway for the next thought. I think I could fail. Before long, these thoughts pick up steam, building upon each other.
With each additional thought, certainty grows that you’ll have a negative outcome. By that point, your mindset is framed toward negativity. Your mind is actively searching for ways the outcome could get even worse. Then it starts attaching that negativity to other actions. Before long, you’re taking jabs at your own self-worth. By the time you’re at this point, it can be difficult to pull yourself out of the negativity.
Getting Out Of A Thought Spiral.
When you’re at the bottom of a spiral, it will often take another person or the event passing to pull you out of it. There are a few things you can try though, if you find yourself in one of these patterns. First, challenge the assertions your mind is making. Are they realistic? Often, if you step back and think about something like I said something weird to my friend today, now they’re going to hate me forever and examine it under the filter of ‘how likely is this really?’. It’s often enough to snap you out of it.
Reframe the situation.
You can also try reframing these thoughts using direct opposites. It may sound a little silly at first, and it may make you say some ridiculous things, but the point is to show easy it is to keep trending in one direction. I’m going to pass this test. When I pass the test, I pass the class. After I pass the class I graduate. When I graduate I get a degree and make my parents proud. When I make my parents proud I’ll have people who love me forever. I’m brilliant and I always do everything right. This will show you the range of possibilities, hopefully pulling you into a more realistic middle ground.
Talk To Someone Else.
Getting someone else’s perspective can also help. Find someone you can trust who will listen and be supportive, then tell them about each step in your spiral. Often, just having to verbalize your thought pattern will show you how harsh it is. If not, another person will usually see the negative leaps and bring you back to the core concern. Don’t be afraid to get support.
Get Back To The Core Concern.
You can also try directing your attention back to the core concern by yourself. This can skip past a lot of the spiraled negative thoughts and get you back into the actionable realm. In our test example you’d realize you were spiraling, then ignore all the follow-up thoughts and solely focus on ways to become more prepared for the test. If you’ve been spiraling for a while or haven’t worked on this mental habit much though, this strategy can be difficult.
Build A Habit Of Recognizing Spirals.
The most effective strategy is to build a habit of redirecting these thoughts as they happen. The earlier you can recognize and reframe these negative thoughts, the easier it will be to keep from entering a negative spiral. It may take time, but each time a negative thought comes your way, intercept it and replace it with something more empowering and actionable. Over time as you build this habit, you’ll spiral less and less, up until the point it rarely happens anymore.