Spiralling: Breaking the Cycle of “What Ifs”

Spiralling: Breaking the Cycle of “What Ifs”

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.

Get grounded

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.

Amanda Sheppard

Find out more about Amanda here

Other Articles written by Amanda:

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Mental health while working from home

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10 tips to boost your mental health while working from home

By now, it’s a common concept to many of us, and while it has its obvious positives, working from home can throw a spanner in the works for many, and take its toll on you both physically and mentally. These are some of the best ways to tackle working from home

1. Get changed – While there’s no need to get suited and booted, wearing separate clothes during the working day can have a big impact on your outlook. It might sound like an obvious piece of advice but getting out of your pyjamas before you start the day keeps a separation between work and home even when there may be no physical distance or commute.

2. Clock in and out – It can be tempting to log a few extra hours of screen time, particularly when we’ve gained time by cutting out a commute. But the extra hours add up over time, and you may find them eating into time you had previously spent exercising, socialising, or practising other forms of self-care. 

3. Create boundaries in shared spaces – whether you live with a partner, flatmate, or young family, it’s important to create boundaries to minimise interruption during working hours.

4. Schedule regular check-ins – Video and phone calls with your team and line manager can help foster a sense of community when you might be spending an increasing amount of time alone, and counter feelings of isolation or disconnect. 

5. Stick to a routine – Avoid the temptation to have a lie-in when there are no morning meetings booked. Keeping to a regular start and finish time, as well as lunch break or scheduled short breaks, can have a marked impact on productivity.

6. Stay connected – Where possible, try and arrange Zoom and phone calls with your colleagues instead of relying on instant messaging and emails. The added face time may help combat feelings of isolation and help foster more direct communication with your team.

7. Keep a separate space – Hong Kong homes aren’t always conducive to an entirely separate workspace but, wherever possible, try to carve out an area that’s separate from the bedroom. An association between your bedroom and alertness, productivity and working can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle.

8. Make time to move – Make small but regular movements and schedule frequent intervals to stand. Gentle stretches can combat tired shoulders, while strained eyes and tired minds will benefit from a change of scenery and a short walk.

9. Get outside – Spending time outdoors can foster feelings of calm and help boost concentration. Whether it’s a brisk walk along the harbour, a jog around your neighbourhood or a morning hike to one of Hong Kong’s many accessible urban trails, time spent outdoors can work wonders on mental health. 

10. Learn to say no – Working from home can exacerbate that “always-on” mentality. Learn to check in with yourself and watch for signs of burnout. Taking time to rest, recharge and unwind can be just as important as the bullet points on your to-do list. 

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

Amanda Sheppard

Find out more about Amanda here

Other Articles written by Amanda:

Spiralling: Breaking the cycle of “What Ifs”

Other Articles:

Tips for parents of kids studying online