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

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!


Not Seasonal, Just Depression

The more experience I’ve gained on my mental health journey, the better I’ve gotten at recognizing my depression and the reasons behind it. That being said, depression can still be tricky. There are times where I feel like I know exactly why I feel depressed; other times, it’s like a feeling or emotion comes out of nowhere. The wintertime is actually one of the trickiest times to recognize my feelings. Is it just a time of seasonal sadness, or is it something I need to look into further?

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The Impact of Anxiety on Our Physical Health

Living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder has taught me so many things about myself. I’ve learned what some of my tendencies are, as well as what habits I fall into when it comes to coping mechanisms. I’ve learned about my triggers, what overstimulates me and what makes me anxious. But over the past few years, I’ve started focusing on other things connected to my anxiety. My GAD has always impacted my physical health, but it wasn’t something I often reflected on. Like other mental health disorders, anxiety can affect our physical health. Here’s how it impacts mine!

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I Am Not My Anxiety

This post comes on a heels of a similar post I wrote recently called “I Am Not My Depression” (you can check it out here!). A big part of my mental health journey is the way I’ve noticed that language has built up the stigma surrounding mental health, which means I’m constantly trying to find ways to break down that stigma. And just like in my recent post, I want to share why instead of saying that I’m more than my anxiety, I explicitly try to reinforce the notion that I am not my anxiety – and here’s why.

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Winding Up Versus Winding Down

Every so often, I deal with situations or moments that I’ve come to recognize as “winding myself up.” I know that it’s a pretty well-known phrase and this happens to a lot of people, but I wanted to talk about my experience with getting wound up because I think it’s a unique insight into what it’s like to experience anxiety. Even though it can be extremely easy to get myself wound up, it’s much, much harder for me to calm myself down in a similar fashion. So today I ask – why is it so much harder to get wound up than to settle down?

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When Anxiety Leads to Restlessness

Sometimes, anxiety is like an itch you can’t scratch. You know it’s there – you can sense it, feel it, even acknowledge it if you’re able – but you feel helpless to do anything about it. I’ve experienced this feeling a few times here and there during the past week, which is what I want to talk about today.

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The Challenge of Anxious Thinking

I’ve often thought about the phrase, “the mind works in mysterious ways.” I’ve heard it since I was a kid, and it’s been offered up for everything under the sun as an explanation for why people do the things they do. Since I’m naturally curious, those types of answers have never been satisfying to me. Mostly, this phrase felt like a catch-all to use when people didn’t feel like pondering why something was the way it was, even if they couldn’t figure out a reason why. Our minds certainly work in mysterious ways, and there’s one specific way I’d like to investigate today.

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With Anxiety, It’s Always Something

While I’ve improved how I manage anxiety over the years, there are plenty of ways my anxiety manifests that I’ve never been able to get a handle on. No matter how much I try to manage anxiety in every possible area of my life, there always seems to be something that makes me anxious. Once I see what that something is, I work to manage that anxiety or try to problem solve as best I can. But when that problem is solved, it seems like something else pops up in its place that also makes me anxious. So why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

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Five Tips for Managing Self-Doubt

This week, I’ve been doing a lot of research and reflection about self-doubt, what it looks like and the mental health challenges it creates. Even though it’s been helpful to understand more about doubt and the role it plays in our mental health, managing or overcoming self-doubt is more than just being aware of it. Here are five tips that I hope will be helpful to you on your journey to better manage your self-doubt.

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It Sounded Better in My Head

One of the more prominent aspects of my anxiety is my difficulty with conversation. Most of that stems from social anxiety, which (according to the National Institute of Mental Health) is “an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others.” Having conversations with others, especially people I don’t know all that well, can make me very nervous. I’m often worried I’ll say the ‘wrong thing’ and ruin a conversation, which is why I often avoid them. The biggest reason I end up in these situations is that I have an unrealistic view that every interaction I have with someone should be ‘perfect’ – which is what I want to talk about today.

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