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!

A Reminder About Healthy Foundations

Earlier this week, I wrote about how everything we do serves a purpose when it comes to our health and wellness. I focused on physical exercise and my therapy sessions, but it applies to all areas of life. Each activity can serve a different purpose, and each moment can help us in a different way. Today, I want to elaborate further on that point because something else needs to be shared along with it. In the same way everything serves a purpose, there’s not one thing we need to do that will “solve” our mental health. There’s no magical elixir that will solve all our issues. It may sound obvious but it’s often forgotten, which is why that’s the reminder I want to share in this post.

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Breaking Down Mental Health Terms: What is High-Functioning Anxiety?

Up until a few years ago, I hadn’t heard of the term high-functioning anxiety. To me, anxiety was something that got in the way of functioning. It made decisions more difficult and tasks harder to complete. The idea of a high-functioning version of mental health challenges is new to me, so I decided to do some research. Today on the blog, I want to break down high-functioning anxiety, what it looks like and how we can manage it.

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Why I Can’t Stand Feeling Tired

It happens to all of us often – several times a week, I get stark reminders that I’m only human. Sometimes those are conscious reminders, but many times the reminders are because of my physical limitations. Like many people, one of the biggest reminder of my physical limitations is that I get tired. I push myself physically, mentally, emotionally, etc., and by the end of the day (or few days) I am exhausted. But because of my mental health challenges, I have a lot of negative connotations with feeling tired, and it’s something I’ve come to loathe. Here’s how I figured this out – and how to figure out what’s next.

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A Look at Mental Health in the LGBTQIA+ Community During Pride Month 2022

For the past few years, I’ve done research surrounding mental health and the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride Month. I think it’s important to understand what mental health challenges exist for unique communities and groups of people, and these statistics help paint that picture. There is a lot to unpack here, but one thing is clear – there are many, many LGBTQIA+ people, both youth and adults, who are unable to get the mental health care they need and deserve.

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Do I Know How to Rest? Probably Not.

Exciting news – for the first time in a while, I’m going on vacation! I’m going to see my family, enjoy time off work, and hopefully reset and recharge in the way many of us do on vacation. But one thing I’m nervous about is that I’m going to try doing something that doesn’t come easy to me: I’m going to try to rest. I recently learned that not only am I pretty terrible at resting, but it’s probably something I’ve never learned how to do. So how do I handle that?

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Five Things I Do When I’m Not Feeling Like Myself

Earlier this week, I wrote about what I do when I’m feeling restless or “off.” I think this self-awareness is important for everyone who is trying to understand themselves in a better way. Getting to know yourself is a lifelong journey, and there are many chances to get to know ourselves in a better way, almost daily. I mentioned that there are some things I try to do when I’m not quite feeling like myself, so I wanted to share them today as a chance for reflection, and hopefully some inspiration to anyone aspiring to do the same!

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What to Do When You’re Feeling “Off”

Every so often (maybe one or twice a week), I get a little restless. I feel like I have a lot of nervous energy, and I don’t know what to do with it all. In larger sense, I describe it as feeling “off.” Most of the time, I end up finding a clear reason about why that is – a big life event, a change in my schedule, even just missing a meal or a step in my routine can cause it. But sometimes I can’t quite pick out what’s missing, and that’s what I want to talk about to today. When we’re feeling “off,” what can we do?

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If We Know There’s a Stigma, Why Is It Still Here?

When it comes to mental health, one of the things that is discussed a lot is stigma. The stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness comes up a lot in this space, and it’s something that can become impossible to ignore. But as much as people bring it up when we talk about mental health, the stigma continues to exist and cause harm to people who experience mental illness or other mental health challenges. So today I want to answer the question: if we know a stigma exists, why is it still here?

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Closing Out Mental Health Awareness Month 2022

Every year when I reach the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, I try to reflect. I reflect on mental health in the state of my community, my city and my country, and I wonder if anything has happened this month that could lead to substantial change. This year, I have to say I’m a little discouraged. I know I’m usually a little more positive about mental health awareness, but after this month it seems like we have so much of it backwards. That’s why, to close out this month, I want to share why talking about mental health – the right way – is more important now than ever.

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