It gets you every time. And you know it’s coming: the dreaded downward spiral. Maybe you got some bad news or experienced a huge disappointment. Or maybe it’s something relatively minor that somehow manages to have major impact, like finding out you weren’t invited…again. We all have our triggers, the little things that never fail to remind us of all the things we wish we could forget. And before you know it, down and down you go, as one thing quickly leads to another.
Anxiety, fear, panic, depression, hopelessness. However it manifests itself, the pain we carry inside will eventually surface, often when we least expect it and never at an ideal time (is there ever an ideal time?). Our feelings themselves aren’t wrong or bad, but how they affect us can be unhealthy and move us into even deeper places of pain.
There is a way to avoid the downward spiral.
You and I are not helpless or powerless in any sense, and though we cannot control everything that happens outside of us, we can learn to exercise self-control. It’s one of the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and it isn’t just limited to controlling our behavior. It’s also about learning to take authority over the thoughts, responses, and emotions that lead us away from a healthy and vibrant life.
So before you start to circle that drain, here’s what to do:
1. Stop and assess the situation. When I was working with a life coach,* one of the most valuable techniques I learned was to ask myself a few simple questions like these:
- What I am feeling right now? (angry, sad, afraid, etc.)
- What is my current situation?
- Are my feelings about only this situation, or could they be connected to something more?
- Is this really ‘my stuff,’ or am I reacting to someone else’s?
It is important to cut through the dense fog of negative thoughts and emotions with clarity. Sweep aside everything but the immediate facts. It’s ok if you’ve got multiple issues intertwined—you’ll deal with them later on. But for now, separate the immediate from the extraneous.
2. Offer up a quick, go-to prayer. If you don’t have one of these, you need to get one. Short, simple, to-the-point, and grounded in Truth. I explained this in detail in a previous post, but essentially, mine is this: “God, I know you understand. God, I know you care. God, I know you’ll help me.”
There’s no sense in doing much of anything else until you’ve done this.
3. Zoom out. When you’re in the middle of anxiety, panic, or serious discouragement, you lose perspective. Zoom out in order to get the big picture. Everything you experience in your life, even the most critical moments, only comprises part of your ongoing story. No one event, not even a series of events, summarizes you or your entire life. Even death is not final. Whatever you are experiencing right now might be a word, a sentence, or maybe even a whole chapter, but it is not the whole story.
4. Take a little control back. If you are feeling out of control, do a little bio-feedback exercise. Unless you are having a medical emergency, you can control your heart rate and your breathing. Concentrate. Slow them down, and create physical peace within your body. You can do the same thing with your thoughts, even by focusing on these steps. Don’t be tempted to dismiss this–it works!
5. Devise a game plan. This need not be an elaborate plan, as long as there’s a plan. Ask yourself, “is there something I can do to improve the situation right now?” If there is, write it down, and make a plan to do it. If there isn’t anything you can do, that’s OK, but you can plan out how you will respond to it just the same. Choose to play an active role in your healing.
6. Choose one healthy diversion and do it now. Notice I said healthy. If you stuff your emotions, or eat a whole cake, or anything else along those lines, you’ll have both your original problem plus regret to deal with later. Don’t do it. Self-care diversions are great, but it would be even better to do something for someone else or get a small task accomplished. Need some ideas? I made a list of some here. You can print them out and add your own.
7. Choose to make ‘whatever this is’ a stepping stone to something better. This is my favorite one. I still struggle with doing this step every time I approach the spiral, but I do really believe in it. There are unlimited opportunities in life to teach and to learn. You can learn from every situation (even this one) and make it a stepping stone to something better. Ask God, “What do you want to teach me through this?”
Avoiding the downward spiral is the key to not just coping with whatever life throws at you, but thriving through it. And thriving beats coping, hands down, every time.
So there you have it: my personally-tested (and tested and tested) 7-step approach to avoiding the downward spiral. Invite Jesus into this process and I guarantee it will work! All you need is the desire to break the cycle and the discipline to keep at the steps. I’m not saying it’s easy–in fact, the easiest thing is to just give yourself over to the emotions. But you can take authority over your emotional responses once and for all, and that payoff far exceeds the effort it takes to get there.
*thinking you could benefit from a life coach? This is who I recommend.
Do you have any other techniques that help you avoid the downward spiral?