Breaking Down Mental Health Terms: What is a Thought Spiral?

Over the years, I’ve learned a number of words, phrases and definitions that have helped me understand my own mental health. Some of these are connected to mental illness or medicine, while others are connected to mental wellness. In this recurring series, I break down some of the mental health terms I’ve learned over the years. Today, I’ll be breaking down thought spirals: what they are, what they look like and what we can do about them.

What is a Thought Spiral?

There are many other names it goes by (anxiety spiral, downward spiral, spiraling thoughts) but simply put, a thought spiral is a series of thoughts that become increasingly overwhelming as a person gets stuck on them. They are typically linked to anxiety and anxious thoughts, but thought spirals can also exist when people are experiencing depression or other mental illness.

Another similar term (or perspective to think about this term) are the cognitive distortions catastrophic thinking and magnification. Both of these cognitive distortions can happen when a person’s thoughts have been spiraling out of control. Whether they are becoming increasingly overwhelming or unrealistic, our thoughts can spiral out of control and lead us into believing things that are simply untrue. When thoughts turn from rational to irrational, it’s time to take a look at what’s happening in our brain.

What Does a Thought Spiral Look Like?

One of the tricky things about thought spirals (at least for me) is how they can sneak up on us. Sometimes our thoughts will lay dormant, not bothering us at all. But then an intrusive or negative thought could enter our brains and if we’re unwilling or unable to acknowledge it, it gets stuck in our head. Before you know it, one thought has piled on another, and your thoughts are spiraling in a much more negative or overwhelming direction than you’d anticipated.

An excellent example of a thought spiral (image via guelphtherapist.ca)

As someone who has to be aware of thought spirals on a daily basis, I’ve gained a better sense of when I’m susceptible to thought spirals. Simply put, there are just some roads of thinking I don’t need to go down because I know what could happen. That doesn’t mean I’m always successful, but that bit of awareness has helped my mental wellness in ways that are invaluable. Thought spirals have the same method, but the unique properties of it – what those thoughts are, and how they’re triggered – will look different for everyone.

What Can We Do About It?

In my opinion, the most important thing we can do when it comes to this topic is to be as open and honest as we can. I think that all of us should be aware of thought spirals because they can happen to anyone. Sometimes I feel like my anxiety or depression might make me more susceptible to thought spirals. But also, anyone can land in a situation where they aren’t thinking as clearly as usual.

Recognizing a thought spiral isn’t always easy, but awareness is the first step. If you notice when your thoughts are getting increasingly overwhelming, name it and acknowledge it. When I can name or define something about my mental health, the challenge to overcome that obstacle eases. Be on the lookout for an upcoming post about other tips and techniques for dealing with thought spirals but in the meantime, I hope that awareness is helpful!

For a long time, I experienced thought spirals but never knew what they were. Now I want to hear from you! Have you heard of thought spirals, or do you know them by another name? What is/was your experience with them? Let me know in the comments!

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