When your thoughts start spiraling, getting off the “staircase” can feel impossible. One terrible notion leads to the next: If I can’t get this report done in time, you might think, then I’ll be fired. And if I’m fired, I’ll have nothing to do all day. If I have nothing to do all day, I’ll fall into a video game and beer hole. If I fall into a video game and beer hole, then my wife will leave me. And then … and then … and then …
Does this process sound familiar? This anxiety spiral — also known as “catastrophic thinking” or “magnifying,” — often occurs alongside anxiety and depression. Think of your brain as a rocky mountain: one single distressing thought loosens an avalanche of related anxieties.
Here are some other examples:
- If I don’t stay up all night studying, I’ll fail my test — and if I fail my test, I’ll be kicked out of school.
- I have a missed call from my mother — someone I love must have died.
- There’s a weird freckle on my elbow. It’s cancer. I’m going to die. Tomorrow.
No matter how true and valid each thought feels, it’s important to remember that they are simply thoughts — and thoughts can be constrained. Minimizing your catastrophic thoughts can help reduce your anxiety or be an important stepping-stone in your depression recovery: after all, these torrential cascades of terrible thoughts increase cortisol levels in your brain. Too much cortisol — also known as the “stress hormone” — can cause a number of long-term health problems.
How to prevent catastrophic thinking
Prevent catastrophic thinking by preparing your mind before a distressing thought strikes. Here’s how.
1. Keep an eye on your thoughts
How can you stop something you don’t realize is happening until you’re deep in its maw? The first step in preventing the anxiety avalanche is learning to recognize the unique fingerprint of your brain’s catastrophic thinking.
Practice observing your thoughts without judging their validity or truthfulness. If that sounds hard, you aren’t alone: there’s a reason an increasing number of Americans are taking up yoga and meditation. Sign up for a nearby yoga class or take time each morning to meditate. These practices teach you how to acknowledge your thoughts — without getting swept up in their tide.
Stopping catastrophic thinking requires stepping in at the first sign of trouble. Once you understand your personal thought patterns, recognizing a disturbance will be much easier.
2. Find your spiral’s source
When you’re deep in the black cloud of panicked thinking, uncovering the spiral’s original spark can be difficult. You’re worried about losing your boyfriend, your apartment, and your job — but dig deep to find the root. Did this spiral begin because you failed a pop quiz in chemistry class? Because you felt a funny lump in your armpit?
Once you’ve found what caused the spiral, it’s easier to deal with the problem. Think about it like killing a fast-growing vine: If you don’t dig out the roots, the leaves will continue spreading indefinitely.
3. Use your logical brain
Once you’ve dialed down your catastrophic thinking to its source, take time to dissect your specific anxieties about the issue. Now is a great opportunity to practice your meditation skills, lest you fall into yet another spiral during the dissection! Perhaps learning how to drive terrifies you, and your thinking catastrophizes every time you get behind the wheel.
Use logic to help defeat your wily brain. A lot of panic comes down to overestimating the true chances of danger. Learning the facts may sooth your mind: Research how often car accidents happen and read up on best driving practices to ensure that you’re the safest driver you can be.
Are your concerns health-related? While it might seem scary, the best cure is seeing your doctor. Or if you’re struggling at work, talk it through with your boss — chances are they’ll be more kind and receptive than you expected.
4. Challenge your anxious thinking
Spirals are scary because the thoughts feel so real, but if you notice yourself slipping, take a deep breath and challenge your beliefs. Ask yourself, “Is this threat real right now?” Perhaps you’ve been stuck in your bed for days waiting for laboratory test results. Your mind may be caught up in a web of worries: Do I have a disease? If I have a disease, am I going to die? Even if I survive, how will I afford my care?
Stop. Focus on the here and the now. If the test results are bad, you can deal with it at that moment — don’t waste time panicking about it now!
You want to challenge your catastrophic thinking, but you don’t want to beat yourself up for having anxious thoughts. Our brain does all sorts of unwelcome things without our consent, and having a panic spiral doesn’t make you a bad person. Don’t get angry at yourself for falling for your mind’s clever trap — focus your energies on escaping its pull.
Get in touch with a professional
Not everyone can overcome their catastrophic thinking solo, and that’s okay! If you’re struggling to rein in your thoughts, reach out to a therapist for additional help.
They can work through the causes of your catastrophic thinking and recommend specific, tailored-to-you exercises and techniques. With their help, you can step out of the spiral and start living again.