For the past two weeks I’ve been spiraling at night. I admit it, I’m in a transitional time in my life while adjusting to the change of the seasons and everything happening during a massive cultural shift back to normalcy. As a result, my sleep quality right now basically….sucks. I have what I would tell my clients is “bad sleep hygiene” and lately, like Alice (of Wonderland fame), I seem to follow the white rabbit down a hole of thought patterns that leaves me struggling to find some calm.
The way this looks and feels when it happens is akin to following thoughts like bread crumbs. Sometimes, these thoughts are negative and when one leads to another, and then another, and so on….you're spiraling. This concept is called “cognitive distortion” and it can happen to all of us, especially when our environment and life circumstances align to overwhelm our brains.
Specifically, cognitive distortion is an habitual way of thinking that is biased, based on assumptions, often inaccurate, and leads to the feeling you’re out of control and in the weeds. There are several types of cognitive distortion:
Polarizing: What we’d call, “all-or-nothing” thinking…That means, seeing things as absolutes, rather than accept that the majority of life is an ocean of nuanced gray.
Overgeneralization: This is when one perceives that a negative circumstance or event is a part of or gets set up as a never-ending pattern, so every event in the future will be negative too. For example, one bad date leads a person to think he/she/they are bad at dating and should never date again.
Catastrophizing: This happens when we assume the worst about something: it escalates quickly, and without logic. For example: a new mom worries she’ll fail at making new friends with other mothers and from there she assumes she will always fail when trying, which means she’ll never join playgroups, her child will never have friends, and therefore her child will become a social pariah, etc.
Magnification: This is when an event or circumstance is blown way out of proportion, or, it’s importance is diminished in an extreme way.
The Dreaded ‘Should’: When the inner critic takes over and thoughts become judgmental of every aspect of the event in a negative way. For example, saying to oneself, “I should have known better” and feeling guilt, shame, or blame associated with the thought.
Negative Labeling: Calling oneself names that identify with negative thinking. For example, instead of saying, “I made a mistake" it manifests as, "I'm a loser.”
It's important to remember that because you're human with a brain that is wired to protect you, this kind of thinking can happen at times when your energy levels are depleted emotionally and physically. Your mind ruminates when it thinks it needs to solve a problem, whether it's situational or a manifestation of anxiety or depression: either way, these thoughts need attending to with some support. Some helpful countering techniques can include:
Identifying = Unblending: If you can name what’s going on, you can’t be completely blended with your thinking and that’s a good thing. Figure out what kind of cognitive distortion (above) you’re experiencing, and name it.
Reframing: Go back to the beginning. What was the triggering thought you had that started the spiral in motion? Take that thought and think of an alternative explanation or consider some evidence that tells you it isn’t completely accurate. Or, find a positive aspect to your thought. What is the actual evidence you have that proves your negative thought is correct? Is it? Really?
Thinking in Gray: Allow yourself to evaluate your situation on a scale of 0 to 100. If it feels extreme to you, think about yourself or the event as a partial success rather than a total failure.
Re-Write It: Instead of saying, “I should have…” you might say, “It would have been better if I had….,” or, “next time, I’ll do…instead”
Get it Out: Write it down, talk with your partner, bring it up in therapy! Getting feedback and validation for alternative perspectives can be extremely helpful.
Spiraling is a bummer. It just happens and sometimes it might feel like a herculean feat to stop that wheel from getting out of control. The techniques listed above can help soothe your spiraling while in the moment; however, exploring and discovering the root causes for habitual thinking patterns can be extremely helpful in your efforts to prevent that wheel from spinning in the first place.