In my last couple blog posts we looked at the differences between normal worry and anxiety. One of the key differences is what I frequently refer to as the “anxiety spiral.” In the past I’ve described the anxiety spiral to others as the experience that occurs when a worry leads to perseverating, often irrational thoughts that seem to spiral out of control.
Once an anxiety spiral takes hold, it can feel impossible to regain control. Although the experience of an anxiety spiral can be difficult to put into words, all of my clients with anxiety disorders have described this experience in one shape or form.
I set out to find a solid definition of the experience of an anxiety spiral to help my readers understand what it involves. In my research, I discovered the work of Dr. Jennifer Abel. In her book, Resistant Anxiety, Worry & Panic: 86 Practical Treatment Strategies for Clinicians, Dr. Abel describes an anxiety spiral as “a spiral of interactions among thoughts, images, physical sensations, behaviors and emotions.” Often, these spirals are triggered by a simple thought.
For instance, in my post “Am I Normal?” I introduced Jane, who was experiencing symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In describing Jane’s experiences prior to taking an important exam, I provided an example of an anxiety spiral. Jane has a worry about her exam, which then leads her to additional stressful thoughts about her performance. This quickly leads Jane to experiencing physical sensations related to her anxiety. She begins to imagine failure. Her negative emotions take over. She changes her behaviors toward herself and others. Jane essentially gets stuck in an anxiety spiral and it impacts her ability to function in multiple areas of her life.
Although it can feel impossible to stop an anxiety spiral, there are many ways to stop it in its tracks or, better yet, prevent it from beginning. A cognitive behavioral therapist can help you learn the techniques to do this. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a well-researched, best practice approach to treating anxiety.
One frequently used technique that can stop an anxiety spiral from occurring is to take a moment and feel yourself in your body. This is known as grounding. During a grounding exercise, an individual focuses on the breath and slowly “checks in” with each body part. There are multiple short, guided meditations for grounding that can be found online or with apps such as Headspace, Calm and Buddhify.
Have you ever experienced an anxiety spiral? Have you wondered how you got sucked into such a destructive pattern? Anxiety and overthinking don’t have to dictate how you life your life. Consider talking with a CBT therapist to find out how you can regain control.
If you question if you are experiencing anxiety spirals, please contact me and we can arrange for a therapy session.
Do you remember Jane? We met Jane in our last post and went through the anxiety she was feeling regarding her upcoming exams. To help you get a feel for what normal anxiety looks like compared to Jane’s, I wanted to introduce you to Sarah.
Sarah is Jane’s classmate. Like Jane, she is finishing her last semester of college and is preparing for the same comprehensive exam. Although she would love to have a perfect grade point average, her grade point average is, well, average. Sarah has been studying each night for about ½ hour for the exam that is approaching in two weeks. She finds when she lays down at night that she has some what if questions but she tells herself that if she doesn’t pass she can always take the oral exam.
Sarah knows that part of preparing herself for the exam includes making sure she has plenty of sleep, eats well and stays hydrated. She also decides to balance her study time with time spent with her friends and family. She shares with them that she is worried she may not pass the test, describes to them what she is doing to prepare for the test, and accepts their supportive comments that she will do well.
The night before the exam, Sarah goes out to dinner with her best friend. She shares her fears about not passing the exam. They talk about them openly. When Sarah gets home, she studies for her usual half-hour and goes to bed early enough to get a full night of sleep. She awakes the day of the exam feeling well-rested. Although she is a little nauseous, she eats a protein bar while studying her final notes for a few minutes.
Sarah arrives to the classroom feeling alert, but also nervous. Her hands shake a little when she signs in. She tells herself that no matter what happens she will be ok.
I’m sure you can see the difference between Jane and her classmate Sarah. While experiencing some worry and anxiety over big life events is normal, letting it completely dominate your life is not. Here is a little primer on what is normal and what is not:
It is important to remember that everyone experiences some degree of anxiety at some point in life. This is normal. In fact, there are many normal situations that are part of life’s journey that will cause anxiety. In those situations, it would actually be concerning if anxiety wasn’t felt to some degree.
However, for those who are experiencing an anxiety disorder, it is important to seek treatment. Research has shown repeatedly that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a very effective treatment model for those experiencing anxiety disorders.
Sometimes, not being “normal” is a good thing. However, when it comes to experiencing anxiety, it’s important to recognize when your thoughts and actions are outside the normal range and are impacting your life.
What happens when your "what ifs" take over? My next post will answer this question...stay tuned.
If you question if you are experiencing normal worry or an anxiety disorder, contact me and we can arrange a therapy session.
Jessica is a mental health therapist who specializes in helping women free themselves from anxiety, depression, and other stress-related conditions. She is honored to witness the experiences of her clients and work with them toward meaningful lives.