What Causes An Anxiety Spiral And How To Prevent It

You know the dreaded feeling all too well—worrying about backlash over something you’ve said, wondering if that overwhelming social situation will push your stress over the edge, and contemplating all the potentially catastrophic outcomes from a single decision.

This can go one of two ways: You might manage to divert your attention by some stroke of magic, or this initial panic will launch you into a downward anxiety spiral.

Unfortunately, just one trip down this rabbit hole can make it extra difficult to prevent them in the future. Our brain’s automatic reaction against triggers is meant to keep us safe; however, it only perpetuates further feelings of anxiety.

We might grasp at activities that help us avoid or numb the feelings. We may beat ourselves up for not being in control of our emotions. The difficult truth is that the more we fight it, the more anxiety we experience.

What Causes an Anxiety Spiral?

First, it’s helpful to take a look behind the curtain to understand what’s going on in our brains during an anxiety spiral. Simply put, it’s a battle between our logical brain and our emotional brain.

Our logical brain resides in the area of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Picture this as the penthouse office suite.

It’s located at the top/front of the brain and handles the highest level of brain function. It gives executive orders to all mental processes. Our best, brightest ideas and actions are cultivated here.

The emotional center lies in the lower part of our brains. Picture this as the gloomy file storage basement. It’s where our memories are processed and cataloged (hippocampus).[1]

Our sensations of fear and threat originate here as well (amygdala).[2] This is where the “fight-flight-freeze” process originates, activating anxiety.

Inability to deal with our triggers at the onset will lead to an anxiety spiral. We get stuck in the ruts of our stress-induced mental pathways. These can keep us trapped in a continuous loop. What’s worse—this process bypasses our logical brain (PFC).

Triggered anxiety is like an emergency lockdown in our brains. The door to our penthouse office (logic) is slammed shut.

Imagine running up and down the stairwell, desperately seeking escape. (Alternatively, you might freeze, parked in a corner, waiting for the threat to pass.) The blockage prevents you from receiving rational, stress-extinguishing directives from upstairs.

Meanwhile, anxiety skyrockets thanks to the fearful screams coming from the basement.

It’s because of this that we cannot simply reason our way out of anxiety. This is also why anxiety spirals can so easily consume us.

Prevent Anxiety Spirals With These Simple Habits

You wouldn’t wait until there’s a building fire to ensure that the proper safety equipment and escape protocols are in place. Likewise, avoiding anxiety spirals requires that we take proactive measures.

Here are five simple habits that help reduce and prevent anxiety before it can spiral out of control.

1. Meditation (Outside-the-Box)

This one can be tricky. For some people, myself included, attempts at meditation provoke the anxiety monster inside. Turning off our anxious thoughts while they are hyper-activated is impossible.

This is why it helps to make meditation a practice that we engage in during times of calm. Doing this helps train our brains while the PFC is in charge.

It’s kind of like running repetitive fire drills in your office building. This prepares everyone to take immediate action if a fire does happen. Otherwise, you’ll end up panicked as you try to read the fire extinguisher instructions while simultaneously beating back the flames.

What if you can’t seem to manage sitting still to quiet your thoughts? Fortunately, there are alternative meditation methods.

When I was starting out, I found that “moving meditation” worked best for me. Doing a task I didn’t have to concentrate on to complete—like washing dishes, cleaning the bathroom, or walking around the block—helped me avoid relaxation-induced anxiety.[3]

I could allow my mind to wander and notice the thoughts that came up. I could let go of the pressure to stop them from coming or hammer them back down like a crazy game of whack-a-mole.

2. E-Motion (Energy in Motion)

Exercise provides many anti-anxiety benefits. It elevates blood oxygen levels and directly activates the PFC (penthouse office suite). This gives our brains the energy and capacity to override those anxiety-inducing processes.

Exercise reduces muscle tension, which is a common effect of anxiety. It releases feel-good chemicals that help us regulate our emotions.[4]

Regular exercise can also give us a much-needed break from high-intensity thoughts and emotions. It’s important to be aware that this type of break is different from taking an avoidant approach.

The best way to deal with anxiety is to acknowledge it and process it. Putting our energy in motion through movement is one highly effective method for this.

A consistent exercise habit gives us the best of both worlds. It provides a temporary mental reprieve while also priming our brains to effectively deal with adversity.

3. Savor Nervous System Supportive Nutrients

Stress and anxiety are easily diminished with simple dietary additions. Vitamin B6 can help shift the body from fight-or-flight mode to a more relaxed state.

Try these super stress-busting, B6-rich foods: pork, poultry, peanuts, wheat germ, oats, and bananas.

Magnesium is a mineral that plays a key role in regulating our stress response. Much of the general population is deficient in magnesium.[5]

Interestingly, magnesium deficiency increases our risk of adverse stress effects on the body. High stress also contributes to the depletion of magnesium levels.[6] Combat this vicious cycle by eating magnesium-rich foods.

High magnesium foods to try: whole grain cereals, spinach, almonds, black beans, and pumpkin seeds.

Want to double down on this strategy? The stress-busting benefits are even greater by combining B6 and magnesium.[7] High-quality supplements are also an effective option.

4. Embrace the Exhale Effect

Feeling out of control activates the emotional brain. But we can trick our brains into believing we are in control by managing our breathing.

A secret bonus to this is that oxygen is one of the most potent fuel sources for our brains. Ensuring optimal oxygen helps to keep our brains from resorting to fear-based pattern-seeking. We can ditch the need for those energy-preserving methods that keep us stuck in anxiety loops.

Breathlessness is both a cause and effect of anxiety. So, calming anxiety swiftly through breathwork is super effective.

There are many techniques for breathing to calm our nervous systems. One easy trick that’s highly potent for calming anxiety is to take a longer exhale than inhale. Deep inhalations can trigger the fight-or-flight response.

Instead, try this simple breathing pattern: Inhale for a count of three seconds, then exhale for a count of five seconds. This pattern works out to about eight breaths per minute, ideal for supporting our relaxation response.[8]

Repeat this for as long as you like. Two minutes is enough to make an impact on soothing your nerves.

5. Kill the ANTs

ANTs are a major contributor to anxiety, according to world-renowned brain expert, Dr. Daniel Amen. ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) can accelerate the dip into an anxiety spiral.

The brain is a pattern-finding machine. Even though it only makes up a few pounds of our body weight, it uses up to one-quarter of our physical energy.[9] To preserve that energy, it likes to take shortcuts. And the shortcuts it takes are mostly unconscious.

This means that if we don’t master control over these ANTs, they will be our default every time we’re stressed. This creates the perfect storm for anxiety spirals.

Putting the brakes on this requires that we rewire our unconscious circuitry. We must invest time and mental energy to change our thought patterns so that we most often operate from our PFC. This helps us ditch anxiety reactions for more positive outcomes.

We can build new pathways by making conscious, consistent efforts to change our internal conversations.

Final Thoughts

Anxiety spirals don’t have to rule our lives. We can take responsibility for our own mental actions with small, manageable steps.

It starts with understanding how the brain works. Then, we simply train our brains to focus on what we can control, even in fear-inducing situations.

We can use the simple everyday habits above to rewire our brains and process our emotions while avoiding anxiety spirals.

Featured photo credit: Nathan Cowley via pexels.com


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