During particularly difficult times, people can find themselves feeling stuck within a cycle of worry. Thinking about the worst-case scenario and asking yourself, “what if this really happens?” can trigger a never-ending list of follow up worries and doubts. This is known as catastrophising and is a common way for anxiety to manifest.
These worries can stem from many different aspects of life, from worries about missing workplace deadlines and the consequences these may have for employment, to concerns relating to health and the impacts this will have in both the short and long term. In essence, fear can breed more fear, causing the spiral to grow.
As we get deeper and deeper into the spiral, the body’s response to stress becomes more evident, with increased levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – among other physical symptoms. But what causes this spiralling effect?
When we interpret our fears and worries (the “what ifs”) as real, tangible threats, we initiate the fight or flight mechanism in our bodies. But when there is no actual threat to face, and we have nothing to respond to, there’s nowhere for that fear to go. This can cause it to grow and, consequently, spiral.
Physical ways that we can experience anxiety include a tight feeling in our chest, a racing heart, and sweaty palms. Emotionally, it can feel very overwhelming, almost like your mind is swimming in thoughts, and result in a lot of negative self-talk and self-criticism. But while it can feel like you’re stuck in a never-ending cycle, there are things we can do to step outside of it.
Learn to recognise it
Bringing awareness to our thoughts allows us to develop a deeper understanding of them, separating the real fears and threats from the “what if” worries. Guided meditations are a great way to recognise thoughts and are widely available through apps like Calm and Headspace, and on YouTube. Keeping a journal or a notepad to list these thoughts down can also help bring a new perspective as we observe our thoughts.
When you feel like you are spiralling, grounding exercises can help bring you back to the present moment, giving you an increased sense of calm. Taking slow, deep breaths, notice the rise and fall of the breath through your body and you may find the tension slowly leaving with the exhales.
For a more structured grounding exercise, the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique helps us refocus by bringing a heightened awareness to each of our senses. First, start by noticing five things you can see around you. Next, acknowledge four things you can touch and feel the textures as they run through your fingertips. Next, notice three sounds around you, and then two things that you can smell. Finally, notice one thing that you can taste.
Talk to someone
Experiencing anxious thoughts and that spiralling sensation can be an isolating experience – you might feel like you’re the only one that’s felt like this, or that other people wouldn’t understand. But talking to someone may help remind you of your ability to navigate difficult situations and of your toolbox of coping skills, as well as serving as a reminder to practice self-compassion and kindness.
If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.
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