Tell me how you disengage your anxiety spiral
January 23, 2021 6:34 PM   Subscribe

A close friend I will be talking to tomorrow had things go slightly sideways at work at the end of last week. There's nothing to be done until Monday, but they can't stop thinking about it. Level of difficulty: They have a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

What are some ways you've dealt with anxious thoughts like this? My own instinct is to distract myself with something that gives a feeling of accomplishment and then distract with something else for pure fun. I want to have other options to offer on how to stop dwelling on this problem, so that they can relax tomorrow and be their best for Monday.

I will ask if they have contacted their therapist.
posted by JawnBigboote to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Journaling! Sitting down and writing out the narrative and how I feel about it is like pulling a drain plug and draining the anxiety whirlpool. It's pretty cheap and low-effort, so worth a shot.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 6:53 PM on January 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Often when this happens to me it's because I've assumed that the worst possible interpretation of what happened must be true. I find it's helpful to brainstorm all the different ways I might interpret what happened, including truly delusional positive interpretations. So, say I got some critical feedback from my boss at a new job. I might go to "I'm getting fired" and get stuck on that- whereas perhaps this is a sign my boss cares about me and wants me to grow, or maybe there was a misunderstanding, or maybe this is their way of hazing new employees, or maybe they aren't aware of how negative they came off, etc. This can help me pinpoint where my anxious interpretation is really just one of many possible outcomes, not certainty.
posted by coffeecat at 7:02 PM on January 23, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Coffeecat’s comment is a very accurate description of what my shrink calls “catastrophizing.” So what coffeecat said, essentially.
posted by scratch at 7:06 PM on January 23, 2021

Best answer: Talking to therapist, journaling, exercise where you write down the worst case scenario (s) and the most likely scenarios and write steps to take after that, etc. Not a time to skip on exercise, sleep, food, etc. But you're not this person's therapist.

But it's important to realize that you cannot control another person's emotions. It's not your job to make this better. And if this person has an anxiety disorder, they know they're feeling anxious. Sometimes when you're in a spiral it helps to do mindfulness stuff about the anxiety "I am feeling a ton of anxiety. I am sad" etc instead of piling on top of it by fighting the feeling you're already having. There is literally no force in the world that can make another person relax if they're not going to. Simply accepting that the bad feelings are happening and bring ok in the presence of that can help (at least in not making an anxious person feel like they need to relax to please someone).

Highly recommend asking them what they want and listen to the answer. You can offer them options - do you want to vent? Do you want advice? Do you want to vent for a little while then be distracted by a bike ride/video game with me etc? do they want space?

You get to be an equal part of this interaction too - you can ask for the venting to stop and change the subject, you can share about your own life, you can ask your friend for advice/support/distraction, etc. You can disengage and go home when you want to.
posted by Geameade at 7:09 PM on January 23, 2021

Best answer: Remembering that what usually happens is somewhere between the best possible outcome and the worst possible outcome.

TIPP skill to reset nervous system / turn on parasympathetic nervous system: Temperature (activating dive reflex by putting face in a bowl of cold water), 20 minutes intense exercise, paced breathing (ie. Google box breathing if not already familiar), progressive muscle relaxation. Best done consecutively and in that order.

Dumb TV, especially comedy for me.
posted by unstrungharp at 7:28 PM on January 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes for me the only thing that works in the short term is physically challenging myself. Because I am weak like overcooked noodles this doesn’t take much and it’s such a change from my day to day life that it really bumps me out of the spiral and then I can do the decatastrophising thinking through hard work stuff after.

This could take the form of a brisk walk in the cold, doing a high energy aerobics routine, a long slow yoga session, even something like getting a massage or taking a hot bath followed by a quick cold shower. It’s about shifting myself physically so my body feels different from when it is in an anxious state. If I can work breathing exercises into this it’s better but sometimes I can’t remember to do this until I’ve snapped out of it for a while already.
posted by Mizu at 8:24 PM on January 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder and a competent therapist. I also have pills if things get really bad. One thing I would ask your friend is if this is a thing they have. They may say "Yeah but this isn't really bad" (this is normal for anxiety sufferers) and you may want to tell them it's okay if they are feeling really terrible.

Alternately, just something that takes the edge off like a drink (not five drinks, and obviously not if they have a drinking issue) can help people regain perspective and understand the difference between catastrophizing (which feels, in the moment like it's absolutely rational) and being like "Wow that day sucked, I think I've done enough to prepare for Monday, how was your day?"

Because part of being stuck in an anxiety spiral, for some people, is the constant need for reassurance about whatever the thing is. And it's good to be supportive, for anyone having trouble, but someone who just wants to run through ten "likely" scenarios of their nightmare monday, you can maybe gently redirect. "Hey you can't do anything about that now, do you want to talk about _________?" Obviously you don't want to blow them off, but beyond a certain point, continuing to go over and over and over the thing is only going to work them up and not help them move on.

So yeah, keep an eye on

- catastrophizing
- reassurance seeking
- not taking care of here-and-now things (food, hygeine, other parts of their lives) because they're living in a terrible negative future they've created

There's not a ton they can do in the moment, maybe, but they can work on their stress levels in other ways (take care of themselves, exercise and rest, doing things they like or enjoy) and over time work on trying to get some distance from their feelings so they can acknowledge "yeah that was a bad thing" and even "I don't feel good about where this is going" without having to live inside that fear and be panicky for no reason. As a friend, you can listen, be supportive, and also try to be supportive of their anxiety issues which are part of whatever problem happened at work. Some people aren't great at seeing that in the moment, I certainly aren't always, but you can at least try to talk with them about that as well. good luck to your friend.
posted by jessamyn at 8:41 PM on January 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Physical activity. Also here's what the Dalai Lama has to say on worrying:
If the situation or problem is such that it can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it. In other words, if there is a solution or a way out of the difficulty, you do not need to be overwhelmed by it. The appropriate action is to seek its solution. Then it is clearly more sensible to spend your energy focussing on the solution rather than worrying about the problem. Alternatively, if there is no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is also no point in being worried about it, because you cannot do anything about it anyway. In that case, the sooner you accept this fact, the easier it will be for you.
posted by aniola at 8:46 PM on January 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: You can stimulate the vagal response, and there's good evidence that it helps manage anxiety. Doesn't have to be face in a bowl of ice water; I've used a very cold very wet washcloth on my face for the Diving Reflex to manage heart arrhythmia. I use the valsalva maneuver most often, now, see the linked article.

Damage and risk assessment. How bad was it really, or not? What's the worst/best case scenario? How can I address it on Monday?

Distraction. Watch a really stupid movie, listen to some good music, talk walks, exercise, read, cook. All of those are good to do, and if you make lasagna or cookies, you can be anxious, but at least you have lasagna and /or cookies. Cut the time remaining until Consequences Must Be Faced into manageable blocks and focus on getting through each block of time as a task.
posted by theora55 at 8:30 AM on January 24, 2021

Best answer: One thing that’s useful for me sometimes is to do a thing that I know will pay off regardless of how the thing I’m worrying about turns out. Like, “regardless of whether I have COVID, it would be nice to have a lasagna ready to stick in the oven tomorrow night,” or, “filling up my wiper fluid this afternoon will make my life easier next week whether I get fired on Monday or not.” This seems like something that you might be able to encourage as a friend.
posted by mskyle at 8:49 AM on January 24, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you lovely MeFites! Thank you for taking a very broad question and giving lots of great answers for a range of levels of anxiety, from fretting to panic. I read all your answers, made some notes, and called with A Plan For The Conversation (okay, a series of options to suggest depending on how they felt this morning).

I was calling today because I had offered my support and help at the end of last week, but I did ask, point blank, "Do you want my opinion?" because that was really great advice, as was the reminder that I can't fix this nor can I force them to fix it. Yes, they wanted my opinion.

They sounded better from the start of the call. We talked about what they are going to do, why they got hired in the first place (they know their stuff), and what kinds of people are involved (supportive, not likely to blame or shame). It's going to be fine.

Thank you all again!
posted by JawnBigboote at 1:40 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

@jawnbigbooty - I learned through therapy that there are common mental mistakes I make which trigger my panic response. They are specific to me, my upbringing, and the way I see the world.

I took a long list (researching things like this thread, self-help books, etc) and created for myself an "anxiety tool kit". They highlight the ways I might be anxious, and helps wall me through the steps of regaining my composure.

I recommend this process because nothing works for everyone.
posted by rebent at 5:48 AM on January 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

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