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.
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.