By Molly Shea
We’ve all experienced upwards and downward spirals.
Something sets you off: a missed train, negative feedback at work, picking the wrong line at the grocery store.
You feel a rush of frustration, mentally kicking yourself for whatever you—or someone else—did wrong.
Next thing you know, everything seems to be going downhill. A spilled coffee on the rush from the later train. A slip-up in a meeting after second-guessing all your work. Snapping at the cashier as you search frantically for your wallet.
It’s easy to sink into a downward spiral, propelled by the emotional response to a trigger. But what if you were to tilt things in the other direction? What if, instead of spiraling downward, you were to spiral upward instead?
“From an overall brain science perspective, (a downward spiral) can often trigger our fight or flight response,” Northeastern University behavior science professor Kristen Lee, Ed.D., L.I.C.S.W., tells Shine. “A lot of our responses to our environment are really pattern recognition. We can be catapulted into a line of thinking… of looking at a particular situation as catastrophic, even though with some time that can be reevaluated.”
An upward spiral, by comparison, involves pumping the breaks as you react and choosing to respond differently. “We have that primary appraisal phase where we (first) make sense of things, and that’s when our mind can start to go down a downward path,” Lee says. “In the second phase, we can see the resources we have at hand (to help us cope): Our sense of humor, prior learning or knowledge of a similar situation, or a resource like a therapist, or a friend who’s really wise, who helps us see the bigger perspective.”
By calling on those natural resources, we can start to approach said trigger differently. The missed train becomes a chance to take a minute-long breath break. Negative feedback becomes a chance to improve and show off your adaptability.
Of course, upward spirals don’t just happen. As much as we’d love to rise above each and every frustrating situation, spiraling up takes work.
Here’s how to put in the effort.
Take a Step Back
“It’s not always automated to think positively in the face of stress,” Lee says. “Rather than defaulting to frustration, we can step back and become a neutral observer.”
Start by noticing your thoughts and emotions.
Are you angry at the train, your boss, the world? Is there a cutting comeback on the tip of your tongue? Are your fists clenched, or eyes watering?
Just pause and notice, pairing that observation with a few deep, slow breaths. “Avoid labeling yourself or the situation, or another person involved in a situation,” Lee says. “Avoid judgment.”
Once you’ve paused and neutrally observed, it’s time to reroute.
Think about moving “UP”: Unlearning old behaviors and reactions, and pivoting in a new direction, toward a more agile way of seeing yourself.
That can be as simple as reminding yourself that anger won’t help anything, and choosing to react with grace.
Part of that response might be removing yourself from the current situation while you recalibrate, opting for your go-to self-care activity.
“It could be as simple as deep breathing or a brisk walk, or an affirmation you say to yourself if you’re really hard on yourself,” Lee says.
Consider the Context
Downward spirals don’t happen in a vacuum.
How many times have you overreacted after a terrible night’s sleep, or flipped out over a minor inconvenience after getting into a fight with a friend?
“A lot of us will be inclined to think (something is) a huge thing, but really we’re really tired and just need a good night’s sleep,” Lee says. “Remember, ‘OK, I need to nourish myself as much as I can on the daily, so it increases my resilience.’”
Commit to a Regular Practice
“Create mindful moments,” Lee says. “Maybe it’s a break ritual, when you’re working super hard. Can you take that 10 minutes away to clear your mind and breath and not be clenching? You experience a different emotion, and work to bring down that overstimulation.”
A mindful moment may look like a regular breathing practice or daily journaling. Maybe it’s a walk around your office or the park in the early afternoon, when you feel your patience starting to slip.
Consider mindful moments another tool in your kit, helping to bring down the stress that can trigger those downward spirals.
“It really has a cumulative effect, like playing an instrument,” Lee says. “You learn simple songs, then move into more expansive pieces.”
Go Easy on Yourself
You know what makes a downward spiral worse? Beating yourself up for it.
If you feel your thoughts heading downhill, take a deep breath and remember that negative emotions are 100% normal. It would be alarming if you didn’t have them.
Once the bad vibes clear, reflect on what tipped you over the edge and what helped you gather speed, then brainstorm a few ways to stop the next spiral.