Feelings Rookie: The Spiral

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How can one negative feeling send a whole day into disarray? Why do feelings like worthlessness seem to snowball? How do I stop this?

I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen, only that it will: At some point this winter, I’m going to be walking along totally fine, confidently putting one foot in front of the other, when that foot inevitably lands on slick ice.

What was once a lovely winter walk will end up a rumination of the sky as I lie on my back, feeling sorry for myself and my adult body, which is no longer used to falling. The older I get, the less I care if someone saw the fall, and the longer I stay on the ground, thinking about how it happened and taking a mental inventory of my body parts.

Just as I’m certain I will lose this annual battle with gravity, I know I’ll slip as easily and naturally into depression and anxiety, or a discomfiting rootless feeling. And once I start slipping, it’s almost impossible for me to stop my fall down what I call The Spiral.

Spirals in general are rad — they represent a dynamic life, one in which you are always rotating around the same core issues, but from a new perspective each time, even if that perspective is only new because you’re a year removed from it or you live somewhere different.

But in context of The Spiral, it’s more like an emotional, vertical corkscrew covered in ice, on which you only seem to pick up speed. The goal in dealing with The Spiral is to feel like you’ve got a couple of arresting axes that could stop your glissade to doom – but sometimes it’s difficult to even realize you’re sliding before it’s too late.

If I am able to stanch a negative feeling before it hits The Spiral and loops ever downward, I won’t end up sliding. Recognizing where it all begins and nipping it in the bud is tough, but it’s also where I can do the most for myself. If I’m particularly strong that day, or the stars are aligning or all the cows are facing east in the fields or whatever, sometimes I can get there.

But largely, I sputter and fall down The Spiral’s icy slide. With work in therapy and time devoted to trying to understand it, I’ve come up with a couple ways to keep from looping all the way to the bottom. But before I can stop the fall, it has to begin.

As best I can tell, The Spiral starts like this: Something upsets me.

“Wait,” you’re thinking, “that’s all? Just something upsetting you?”

Yep!

I’m hit by the feeling, a negative one like worthlessness, and it starts to snowball. Before long, feeling worthless about, say, a piece of writing I’m not proud of morphs into feeling worthless in general, about everything.

“You’re garbage because you’re upset about literally nothing,” The Spiral taunts as I slide down. “What’s even the matter? You feel worthless because…what? That’s right, your inherent worthlessness, you pathetic lump.”

Sometimes I end up at this point by surprise, like one lovely fall evening after work, where I had been in a fine mood when I left. I don’t remember now what started it, but 15 minutes after I got home, I was on my back porch, holding back tears, wondering what was wrong with me. Surely it must be something, and something serious, for me to feel so absolutely terrible about myself.

It was so quick, this fall. It took driving across my small town to my house, about a seven-minute commute in traffic, for me to start spiraling. I sat on the back porch convinced I was no longer worth my job or whatever triggered the fall, but also not worth anything else in my life.

My wife found me there, and sat with me to talk, which brings me to Self-Arrest Axe No. 1: When spiraling, it can be helpful to verbalize what’s happening in your head, or to write it down. Either way gives it a new presence in your life, and can help provide perspective.

For example, that evening on the porch, I word-vomited all over my wife about my spiral, about how worthless I felt, about how she deserved someone better, someone who isn’t awful like me. She listened, then told me the truth of the situation, which was that I wasn’t seeing everything clearly, that I am so worthy of all this life has to offer, that she loves me.

Did that fix the problem? No, and initially it made me feel worse for feeling so bad. But soon after, because I’ve been here so many times, I made the decision to believe her. She tells me the truth, and I trust her, so I decide with intention to listen to her instead of that nasty voice in my head. We are not always reliable narrators of our own stories in times like this.

Writing also helps me connect dots; if I can’t talk to someone, I take a pen and paper and write out what I know to be concrete truths: I am alive. I am breathing. I have a great partner. My dogs are idiots but in a great way. Yes, I felt badly about that one thing, so I write out why it made me feel that way, then make myself list the worst possible scenarios and outcomes.

Usually, I end up with a list that starts with an incident like “She said it sounded like I didn’t read the article when I TOTALLY read the article!” and ends with “You lose all your friends and die alone.”

My rational mind can still seem to grip onto the idea that this flowchart doesn’t quite add up, and I can start developing a better sense of perspective on the actual problem instead of the noise around it.

For another Self-Arrest Axe, I’ve developed a system with friends who suffer from similar slides. When I’m falling, I rarely want to talk about it, but also desire the comfort of other people wondering and caring about me.

For these cases, my friends and I have selected our own emojis to symbolize when we’re going through The Spiral’s icy shit. I send the volcano to one of my friends without any context, and they respond with gentle reinforcement that The Spiral is lying to me, that I’m a good person, that I’m not everything I’m worried about.

To be sure, it’s hard to hear “You’ve stopped moving! Just stand up!” when you are damn sure you’re sliding at Mach 1 speeds down the corkscrew. But those texts from people who know how this feels, or a list of concrete truths, or words from someone you trust provide handholds to slow yourself down.

Because really, The Spiral is just the frigid home to our emotional ghosts, the ones that have made us feel so terribly they’ve scarred their likenesses to the walls of our psyches. They remind us, every time we experience something remotely similar, how awful this has made us feel, how brutalizing emotions can be. That’s how these ghosts haunt us.

But what happens when I don’t stop myself on the way down, when I hit the bottom alone and scared?

Much flailing used to occur, but now I go still. I know from previous experience that making decisions in this place is a terrible idea, and that punishing myself, either physically or emotionally, won’t get me back up to the top.

I wait as I ride out the negative feelings, those nightmarish specters so starved for attention. When I feel the urge to hurt myself or otherwise be mean to myself for being in this state, I get extra gentle instead. I continue this until The Spiral finally lets me go, because – and this is important – it always will. It may take days, or weeks (been there), but it doesn’t last forever. That’s the Emergency Self-Arrest Axe I use on particularly steep slides, one that doesn’t stop me, but slows me just enough to breathe.

I don’t trick myself into thinking I have all the answers, and I fall down that damn Spiral a lot. But not as much as I used to, and not for as long. I don’t lose days to it anymore, just hours. My hope is that one day, I will be able to see I’m at the top with my toes jutting out over the edge, and I won’t even need the axes – instead of giving into gravity, I’ll put my foot down on dry ground and walk the other way.

Molly Priddy is a writer and editor in Northwest Montana. Follow her on Twitter: @mollypriddy

Molly has written 43 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I can often lose the whole day, so now I assume that’s how it will be and just wallow until bedtime. I am glad I can usually accept this calmly and know that it’ll be better tomorrow, but it’s such a waste, so it’s great to hear about things that can actually help at the time.

  2. This is a great way to describe it, I’ve always thought of spiralling but not the ice analogy. The writing a list strategy is something I used to do. Suggested by my wife many moons ago when we were just friends. It helped at the time. I’m in a different place with my depression and anxiety now, not more in control but definitely more aware of when I’m being irrational and of external contributing factors. Pretty sure vast amounts of reflective practice through my quals, degree, and post grad got me here. Being constantly required to attempt objective self criticism for 7 years actually turned out to be useful.
    There’s a phrase spoken by us northern Brits when someone is being irrational, generally in a less mental health based situation, (more someone is having a meltdown because the pub has run out of salt and vinegar crisps), but it’s appropriate for me and it goes thusly; “Have a word with yourself”
    So that’s what I do. If the spiral begins, and I can see even the slightest hint that I’m being irrational, I talk myself down to minimum damage zone. I do this mostly with lists and logic. Much like your writing and flowchart strategy. I literally talk out loud to myself. Sometimes I shout. I realise this doesn’t look good to an outside viewer, but it helps. It’s got me through some moments, it’s even occasionally helped me side step the spiral.

  3. Talking with the wife helps me from time to time, but sometimes all those negative thoughts prevent me from talking or writing. I get to the point where I don’t even care because it’s too overwhelming. Since I don’t have friends to support men, I find that distracting my mind with humor helps me enough to try and figure out what the hell went wrong. Like for the past two days, I’ve hit this dreaded spiral and I’m still feeling down but thanks to some funny cat pictures, I’ve realized my negative feels are a result of medication withdrawal and there is nothing wrong with me. As much as I know this, it’s still pretty hard to come out of this dark place.

    Great read, can’t wait for the next.

  4. I can’t thank you enough for this. I feel so validated and also like I have new tools to fight with. I just shared this with my best friends, we’re gonna start the emoji thing, and we’re gonna get better at helping each other fight our spirals.

  5. This is great. I love how you have a group of friends that also spiral and y’all can text in help.

    I have the same problem and two things helped me:
    -don’t eat carbs (or skip a meal) before bed. Have protein and fat before bed instead. Otherwise my blood sugar drops too much overnight and I wake up depressed / anxious / terrible.

    -Pema Chodron. I listen to her free videos on youtube, and sometimes if I can’t manage that, I’ll just google ‘Pema Chodron depressed’ or ‘anxious’ or whatever today’s gremlin is and read a page and feel better.

    • I heard a quote once that brought me back to the days of anxiety/obsessive (under)eating (and then subsequent sugar binge) spirals: “It’s amazing how much of anxiety is caused by sleep deprivation combined with low blood sugar.” Reminds me that when i’m anxious is when I especially need to sleep and eat properly! I don’t think it’s the only cause of anxiety, but it’s hard to think clearly when your body is deprived.

      • it’s currently 3 a.m. and i’m awake b/c my blood sugar dropped too much to stay asleep (my little bed-time meal today was too small and starchy, apparently). Def nutrition and sleep are connected for me, esp when i’m exercising and have to eat more.

        Off to shovel down some more pumpkin seeds.

  6. Thank you so much for this article! This is what I needed after working all week in retail before the holidays and feeling incredibly depressed and anxious. These are some great coping strategies, and i wish i remembered to make of use of them more often.

  7. This is such a big thing for me… Sometimes I go into The Spiral just from thinking about it, or when trying to make some trivial decision that I’ve imbued with way too much moral weight, or any one of a hundred other things. I’m doing better with it with therapy and medication, but it can be really hard sometimes not to allow some small bit of negativity to spiral into “I don’t even deserve to exist.” Thank you for helping me to feel less along in that!

  8. This is interesting. Spiraling isn’t really a thing for me? Except when I’m hypomanic…then I spiral but not in a depressive I-am-the-worst way. I spiral into becoming more and more hypomanic, and I often don’t even realize it until I’m like day 3 into the spiral, have slept 5 hours total over those three days, and start trying to talk to EVERYONE, but when I look back it’s like…oh yep, playing fast music and just trying to race to stay ahead of my thoughts is not a good thing and just makes things worse. I wonder if some of these coping mechanisms could be adapted to slow or stop the hypomanic spiral…I think a couple might, but they might require more self-awareness than I typically have, and I try not to obsess over things because that’s the #1 way to induce paranoia for me.

    I don’t know, I guess I’ll think about it and see if I can try a few of these techniques before things get too off the rails next time I start swinging hypomanic.

  9. Your perfect description of the spiral is exactly how my mind visualizes my depression. My spiral lands in a deep hole that you just can’t quite climb out of. The walls crumble in your hands. You can’t always see the top. But you know the further you slide down the worse it gets. The bottom leaving suicide as the only escape. And when you start to actually climb out there is someone/ something there to push you back down in.

    Years of therapy have helped me get to the top again but the spiral is a slippery bugger. I need a sounding board to listen then redirect my thoughts to stop the self criticism.

    My time in the hole is less frequent and of shorter duration then then past. But the spiral can shoot you back in with the slightest nudge.

    Thanks for this awesome article and being able to articulate what so many of us feel.

  10. I missed this feelings rookie before, but as I am sitting in the basement at work crying on my lunch break because of the Spiral, it’s pretty accurate. I don’t even know what triggered it.
    How do you deal with it when it happens at work?

    • Excellent question. I hate crying at work. But when I need to, I go to the bathroom and give myself five minutes of unadulterated sobbing. I usually make it about 45 seconds before I start running out of steam. Then, I wash my face, look myself in the eyes in the mirror, and say to myself, “OK. Moving on,” with the promise that I’ll deal with it either later on in conversation or in a journal.

      It’s definitely OK to compartmentalize — we’d never survive without it — but it’s important to remember not to just smash down and forget it. When you’re in a safer place later, where you can sit and think without people watching you, try thinking about what you were feeling leading up to the trigger.

      But even if you can’t find a reason, that’s OK. These things happen. And you’ll get through it, because it won’t last forever. Recognizing that you may just have to be quiet and gentle is OK, and if that’s all you end up doing today — being quiet and gentle to yourself — that’s OK too.

  11. Beautiful read, I related to so much of it.
    My solution is pretty simple though: a few tokes makes me forget what messed me up so much earlier.
    Seriously I can be in tears and the joint and an episode of Steven Universe, for example, will cheer me the hell up.
    Thanks for the read.

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