Stuck in a Negative Spiral?

Try the 4As to stop the spin and feel better fast

Two nights ago, I tossed and turned half the night. 

You know how, in the dark, in the middle of the night, everything feels so much more serious?

Well, I'd gone to bed not feeling 100% and basically spent half the night analyzing my every physical symptom and getting more and more tense and worked up.

I bounced between hypervigilence and hypochondria, half sure I was getting sick and getting more and more worried with each passing second. No matter how many times I tried to rationalize, or tell myself I was being silly, I just. couldn't. stop.

In talking with a few people about my experience, it sounds like I'm not alone: many of us are starting to spiral out about every little cough, stomach ache, or feeling of exhaustion. And while we have every reason to be super vigilant right now, staying stuck in the negative spiral makes us physically and emotionally stressed, which research has shown time and time again weakens the immune system.

Thankfully, I have a simple 4-step process I use regularly to get myself out of negative spirals, which I was able to apply that night to finally fall asleep.

Turns out, I wasn't sick like my nightmaring thoughts would have had me believe that evening. Instead, I was stressed and anxious - no surprise in the middle of a pandemic.

Since stress is at an all-time high right now, I’ve had to use this process just about every day since then to reflect and regroup. It never fails to help me start feeling better immediately. 

I've been using this technique for years and it's literally changed my life.

I used to think that the more I thought about something, the more likely I could figure it out and change it. But all that thinking (and thinking and overthinking) just made me miserable.

The more I thought about it, the worse I felt, and the worse I felt, the more I thought about it.

It wasn't until I changed how I thought about it that I finally was able to create the change I was looking for - and I started feeling better immediately.

I've used this to heal from heartbreak (because nothing creates a negative spiral like a heart-wrenching heartbreak), stop the swirl in my head from "constructive" feedback, and quickly shift when I feel myself worrying too much about, well, anything.

So, whether you're battling pandemic-related anxiety, frustrations at home or work or anything else that has you spinning, use it as a chance to practice the 4As and see how you feel!

The 4As: Shift your thoughts and start feeling better fast

1. Acknowledge (or awareness)

Acknowledge the fearful/negative thought you're having or the reactive pattern you're falling into.

Sometimes you'll notice this because you'll catch your thoughts, other times you may first catch a physical response (tense shoulders, clinched jaw, headache, stomach ache, racing heart... I'm sure you know).

Most of the time, we don't even know we're feeling stressed or thinking something negative until we realize our bodies have tensed up. Regularly check in with your body to become aware of how it's feeling. When you're not feeling at ease, you know there's something going on.

2. Ask

Get curious about your thoughts rather than holding onto them. What thoughts are you thinking and how are they making you feel?

Did you know that 4 out of 5 of our thoughts are negative and 95% are repetitive?

Given that, the chances are very good that if your body is feeling tense, it’s because you were thinking something negative (and probably not for the first time...). So, once you’re aware there’s a negative reaction, it’s time to get curious.

Ask yourself:

  • What thoughts am I thinking and what is the story I'm making up right now about them?
  • Is it really true?
  • Can I be 100% sure it's true?
    • (Hint: as we well know right now, there's very little we can be totally sure of - especially as it relates to negative stories we're telling ourselves)
  • How do I react when I believe this story or thought?

3. Accept

Accept whatever is coming up for you in that moment.

Here's where most of us stop. We may be good at recognizing that we're stuck in a spiral but when we catch ourselves, we beat ourselves up for it:

"What is wrong with me? Why can't I just stop thinking this? God, this thought again? Get it together!"

Sound familiar?

We’re typically so busy talking to ourselves in a way we wouldn't dare talk to our worst enemies, when we’d be much better off talking to ourselves as we would talk to our best friends. 

We may *know* everyone (including ourselves) thrives in loving supportive conditions way more than judgemental, critical ones, when it comes to how we talk to ourselves, we somehow forget that... (Me too - and I teach this stuff!).

Try this instead:

Rather than trying to change by beating yourself into submission, hold yourself in kindness and grace when you catch yourself in a negative thought or pattern that's not serving.

In case you want to know what’s happening behind the scenes, what we’re doing here is creating new neural pathways. 

These negative thoughts are deep neural pathways in your brain - I like to think of them like deep canyons since they’ve likely been on repeat for so long, carving out deeper and deeper trenches. So, it’s easy for us to slip back into them over and over. 

And, if you just recriminate yourself once you realize you’re in a negative thought pattern, all you’re doing is staying inside that negative thought pattern, and deepening the canyon. 

To create new, more positive neural pathways, you have to first get out of the current negative one, which requires intentionally redirecting your focus away from the negativity.

Since you can’t change what you don't know, take this as an opportunity to mentally high-five yourself for catching it rather than a chance to further recriminate yourself for "screwing up" or "doing it again". And when you do, you’ve just popped yourself out of your negative neural pathway.

4. Activate

Intentionally activate a more positive thought or get out of your head altogether.

The way to start feeling better is to activate better, more positive thoughts. I'm not talking about faking it or trying to make yourself believe something you don't, but rather intentionally shift to something that feels more positive - it doesn't even have to be on the same subject.

My favorite thing to do is actually to get out of my head altogether - take my attention away from thoughts and focus on something in the present moment.

The other night it was my breathing, the energy flowing through my body, and how comfortable the bed felt. Other times, it's the sound of the birds singing in the trees, the wind blowing the trees, or how the sun feels on my face.

Fear and worry only exist in our minds - and believe me, I have them too - so the thing I'm most vigilant about is practicing getting out of that space entirely until the stress clears up a bit and I can think more clearly.

Practicing gratitude practice can be another really great technique, as well. If you need some ideas on how to get started, check out this article for my favorite gratitude practices.

Practice, practice, practice!

If you've ever tried to learn something new, you know it takes lots of practice, and this will too. Our brains are super used to veering into the same old negative thought patterns because those canyons of negative neural pathways are deep, so they’re easy to fall into again and again.

You may feel like you're chasing a tantruming toddler for awhile, and wondering it’s taking so long to change?! Don’t give up! Just keep high-fiving yourself and redirecting.

With time and practice, you will literally build new neural pathways that support different thought patterns and connections in the brain. Each time you practice the 4As, think of it as digging a new trench - with each shovel full, you're literally carving a new path for yourself.

 


 

Share in the comments how you're applying the 4As and any tips you're picking up along the way. You never know when your comment is just the thing someone needed to see to finally shift and make the change they've been trying for!

 

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