How to Stop an Anxiety Spiral
It starts with a stressful event, you notice your breathing starts getting heavier, your heart is beating faster and faster. Your thoughts start to race, and you start to focus on these physical symptoms. “Is this just anxiety?”, you ask yourself, fearing that it’s something much worse. Could it be a heart attack? More adrenaline and cortisol are dumped into your system increasing the physical symptoms. You wonder if you could be dying. You are officially in an anxiety spiral.
The best way to stop your anxiety from spiraling is to stop it right at the beginning. Ask yourself the following questions: Where is the anxiety coming from? What was happening when it started? Were you having negative thoughts? Catastrophic thinking? If you stop to examine your thoughts, are they rational? Or just the anxiety talking?
Chances are you were having what is known in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) as irrational beliefs, or cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are negative thoughts that have become habitual over time. The more you practice them, the more entrenched they become, and the more difficult they are to get rid of. It’s believed that initially, these thoughts were a way of coping with a difficult situation. But even if that is true, if you’re experiencing anxiety spirals, they are no longer helpful. So, let’s talk about how to handle cognitive distortions.
CBT has several different practices and techniques to do this exact thing. The most common one is a way of systematically examining your thoughts and then reframing or rewriting them in a way that is more positive and helps you to cope with the situation better. These reframed thoughts are at times called coping thoughts. An explanation of the full scope of treatment interventions in CBT is beyond the scope of this article, but if you are interested in doing this type of work, look into finding a CBT therapist that you can work with. In the meanwhile, check out the suggestions below for some quick, short-term fixes which work well to calm the anxiety during an attack.
1. Deep breathing. There are many different simple deep breathing exercises available to be found on the internet. I would suggest the 4-7-8 method which is explained here. Deep breathing has been thoroughly researched and has been found to be an effective treatment. Plus it’s really easy to learn, is free to do, and you can do it literally anywhere.
2. Ask yourself, “what would I say to a friend?” Chances are you would be much kinder talking to a friend than you have been talking to yourself. Try talking to yourself in this kinder voice. Say the things to yourself that you would say to that friend.
3. Engage in some vigorous exercise. It will help to release the nervous energy and calm your mind.
4. Start writing a gratitude journal. It’s easy, all you do is write 3-5 things that you are grateful for. This is not a cure, but it does help you to think a bit more positively and release some of the anxiety. If writing isn’t your thing, do a gratitude meditation instead: take a few deep breaths, then spend some time thinking of 3-5 things that you are grateful for.
5. Take a walk in nature. A little sun, some mild exercise, and nature can be very calming, especially if paired with deep breathing.
6. Talk to someone. A friend, family member, neighbor, or a professional can be helpful. Make sure this is a supportive person and not someone who will put you down.
7. Listen to your favorite music.
8. Try an app like HeadSpace or Calm. They feature guided meditation and most have some free content.
9. Start a mindfulness practice like meditation, Tai Chi, or yoga
10. Put your face into a bowl full of ice water or put an ice pack on your neck or chest. The coolness will help to reverse the physical “fight or flight” response that your body is going through.
11. Try a grounding technique. A simple one to remember is the 5-4-3-2-1 in which you find items in your environment using all your senses. It goes like this: Find 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste.
12. And finally, if you need more help than this, please reach out for help with a professional! Anxiety is a very treatable condition.
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