The Squeaky Wheel of Anxiety: How to Stop Your Spinning Mind

blurred image of spinning circus rideSometimes, anxiety feels a lot like riding too fast on a spinning carousel at an amusement park. It takes hold of a particular thought or fear and spins on it nonstop. It’s frustrating and exhausting, and it can feel out of our control.

The temptation in that situation is to do one of two things to feel better: (1) distract ourselves from the thoughts or (2) indulge them. Distraction maneuvers include watching television, calling a friend, taking a pill, or checking Facebook. Indulging behaviors might look like making endless lists and notes about anxious thoughts, researching whatever the issue is for hours, or calling people to talk through the same problems over and over.

The tough truth is that we can’t run from what’s bothering us, and we can’t necessarily “solve” it, either. If our minds are telling us to be very worried about a work meeting tomorrow, the answer is not to spend hours thinking about that meeting. This gives us the illusion of control—“If I can imagine every possible issue that could arise during the meeting, I’ll be able to handle whatever happens”—while keeping us tired out and high-strung. Trying to solve an irrational fear through rational thought is, as it sounds, impossible.

Instead, we have to do something that feels pretty counterintuitive: To keep anxiety at bay, we should sit with it. This means choosing actions that address the anxiety itself rather than dealing with the subject we think we’re anxious about. “Sitting with the feelings” sounds a lot harder; who wants to lean into feeling scared and worried? But we’ve already tried distraction and indulgence, so we know those are temporary fixes without any long-term gain. Once the fear about the work meeting is soothed, another problem will be waiting to frighten us, and we’ll have to start working feverishly again to calm that thought.

There are many ways to attack anxiety more productively. The tools below are described in their simplest form. If you see one that appeals to you, a professional, a book, or even a website could help you flesh them out and practice them. Other ideas can be tried here and now, on your own.

To keep anxiety at bay, we should sit with it. This means choosing actions that address the anxiety itself rather than dealing with the subject we think we’re anxious about.

1. Words

When your mind is spinning, there’s a story that you’ve created. First, try to figure out the words the anxiety is using to scare you. Perhaps they’re “don’t bother asking that girl on a date, she’ll never say yes.” Or “if you drive on the freeway, you will be in danger.” Write down this message in the clearest words possible, then see if there’s any deeper message underneath it. If you’re afraid to ask someone out, could there be a fear underneath that such as “no one ever likes me”? Does anxiety about driving also include the larger worry that “the world is unsafe”? When we uncover the core message, we can sometimes see that it’s exaggerated and devastating. It’s a huge generalization.

Next, try to find a replacement thought that is more balanced, more realistic. It doesn’t have to be something magical like “everyone always loves me!” or “no one ever gets into car accidents!” These will be difficult to focus on because they’re hard to trust. A more reasoned statement might be “I can handle rejection” or “some women have wanted to date me in the past.” When you come up with a thought that feels more positive and easy to believe in, consciously stop yourself whenever the anxious thought arises, push it away, and replace it with the new thought. Over and over, practice the new words to create a new thought process.

2. Images

If you’re drawn more to pictures than to words, visualizations are a wonderful and powerful way to calm your spinning mind. Try to discern how your anxiety looks to you. Maybe it’s a field of pulsating red, or a spiky ball. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Imagine holding your anxiety in your hands. Feel its texture, its weight, its temperature. Then imagine chilling this anxiety with a breeze of fresh, cool air. See it shrinking in your hand. It becomes as small as a medicine ball, then a kickball, then a handball. Soon, it’s as tiny as a ball bearing. Continue to hold and shrink the anxiety whenever it occurs.

Another way to calm anxiety with images is through creative visualization. There are many such resources available online as audio, video, or written scripts. These stories walk you through a calming experience, simultaneously helping your body relax and moving your mind away from the distressing thoughts and into a more peaceful, controlled state. Practicing these mini-meditations trains your mind to focus less on outside subjects, which we have little control over, and more on our inner selves, which we have complete control over (although this often doesn’t feel true). One lovely visualization can be found here.

3. Physical Feelings

Finally, relaxation and anxiety management can be found by changing how your body is functioning. Sometimes, anxiety starts in the body instead of as a thought. The sympathetic nervous system gets triggered, we feel a thumping heartbeat, quicker breathing, and twitchy muscles, and then the mind looks for something to blame it on. What am I so upset about? Suddenly we’re searching for a cause and choosing targets that may or may not be relevant or significant. It must be my relationship. And then we’re off on the cycle of repetitive thoughts that feel unmanageable.

Anxious thoughts and an anxious response in our bodies are almost always linked, and they need to be dealt with on both levels. First, taking deep breaths and slowing our body movements can help bring some oxygen and blood flow back to the brain, making it easier to think logically. Experts suggest breathing in to a count of four and out to a count of five, both through the nose. The slower out-breath mimics breathing patterns while we sleep, and can help trick the brain into thinking we’re relaxed before we actually are.

These techniques represent just the beginning of ways to address anxiety directly, without trying to run from it. The good news is, once you find a way (or two or three) of gaining control of your spinning thoughts, there can be a powerful sense of mastery and relief. The carousel does not have to rule your mind and body. Rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, you can slow the ride, dismount from the horse, and get a good night’s sleep.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lawrence

    Lawrence

    May 20th, 2015 at 9:36 AM

    There are times I am lying in the bed at night and that little wheel is spinning and spinning, and I just have to tell myself that there is nothing that I can do to change things now, that whatever it is it will wait til in the morning. Generally, and I don’t know why, but this helps to calm me down and I can get some rest.

  • Brad, LCSW-C

    Brad, LCSW-C

    May 22nd, 2015 at 6:29 PM

    I’m not surprised that you feel better when you practice acceptance. Basically, when you tell yourself there’s nothing you can do about it tonight, you move your focus from worry about the future to accepting the present. People with anxiety worry about the future, a future they cannot do anything about in the present moment since the future only exists in the mind and not in reality. When you tell yourself there’s nothing I can do about it right now, you are accepting the reality of your present situation. Importantly, you stop resisting or avoiding something that you have no power over. You also stop resisting and avoiding your feelings, I.e., your anxiety.

    People resist and avoid their problems all the time, which is an interesting phenomenon since neither of those behaviors ever work to resolve problems. When you accept your current situation, you create emotional distance from the problem that allows you to see clearly. And the clear reality is that there’s nothing you can do about the situation tonight.

  • Kat E

    Kat E

    November 4th, 2016 at 1:00 PM

    I do that too Lawrence. Mine is bad at night, when I can’t do anything about things. I do the same, tell myself it can wait until the next day. And, when the next day comes, many times it’s not a big deal.

  • owen

    owen

    May 21st, 2015 at 3:33 AM

    For me it is all about exercise- going to the gym or going for a run, anything that even for just a little while will help me take my mind off of the thoughts that I am having.

    Even sometimes I will be working out and I just feel that stress roll right off of me like water, it’s really kinda strange but it works for me.

  • Gretchen

    Gretchen

    May 21st, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    The mind really does work in mysterious ways doesn’t it? I mean, you can tell yourself something enough, even if it is not true, that you will actually come to believe that about yourself and once you start there is almost no way to leave that thought behind.

  • shay

    shay

    May 21st, 2015 at 4:07 PM

    Weirdly enough it is the nights when I am the most tired when I have this problem!

    You would think that I would fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow but that never seems to be the case. It’s like I start fretting over even the smallest little things and this can churn and go on all night!

  • Michael O.

    Michael O.

    May 22nd, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    It is important to know where all of this anxiety stems from, and once you can begin to understand that then I think that it should become much easier for you to handle those life stressors.
    But until you can get a firm grip on what it is that is causing this in your life then you really don’t stand much of a chance to battle through it.

  • Betsy Sansby

    Betsy Sansby

    May 23rd, 2015 at 8:44 AM

    As a therapist who’s been working with anxious clients for over 30 years, I have to disagree. At night, when the world is quiet and your brain is buzzing with worries, focusing on your anxiety is not the best idea. At times like this, when your brain is exhausted and spinning out of control, the last thing you need is to hyper-focus on how crazy or fearful or despairing you feel.

    In situations like this, often the best thing you can do is focus outward on a mundane task that requires just enough focus to keep you from obsessing on how rotten you feel. Examples of outward-focused tasks are:
    – Organizing a closet
    – Alphabetizing your files
    – Folding laundry
    – Vacuuming
    – Knitting, painting, doing a crossword puzzle

    What all of these activities have in common is that they are mundane tasks that are soothing to the brain. This is because these tasks require the disengagement of the fight, flight, or freeze response (the emergency alarm system that fires whenever our body perceives any kind of threat) and the engagement of the less reactive and slower moving functions of the higher brain.

    In essence, these are distraction techniques that can pull us out of a reactive state and allow us to feel more sane and comfortable.

    Focusing on our breathing, our heart-rate, or the tightness in your chest–especially at night–is only likely to increase our awareness of how out of control our bodies feel. This is a job for a more rested brain that has the ability to discipline itself.

  • Darren R

    Darren R

    March 29th, 2017 at 10:41 PM

    My 10 year relationship has recently ended due to anxiety issues from my partner. I have been told it’s my fault but after reading the above comments my concerns for her health have now increased, I was living on a bubble focusing on our children and work while this beast has hurt her…..

  • Dale

    Dale

    March 31st, 2017 at 4:30 AM

    But all these outward-focused tasks are just hiding and running from the feelings. It’s the opposite what is written above.

  • Jameson

    Jameson

    May 23rd, 2015 at 12:55 PM

    So it sounds like it is a fair assumption that most of the time those people who live with this kind of stress, it is not usually because they are worrying about one specific thing- it could be anything that will raise this level of worry in their mind.

  • Wendy K

    Wendy K

    May 23rd, 2015 at 6:10 PM

    Well, I’m not a therapist but as someone who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (which thankfully is not nearly as bad as it used to be), one of the ways I learned to deal with anxiety IS to distract from it. I think these sound like good ideas, too, but distraction in the form of a book, movie, or even FB doesn’t necessarily strike me as a bad thing. At least I then no longer feel anxious.

  • Neve

    Neve

    May 25th, 2015 at 6:45 AM

    I am forever giving in to that need to feed my anxiety, there is something about my personality that feels like I am ignoring it if I try to distract myself, so I give in to the worry and the stress

  • vicki

    vicki

    May 25th, 2015 at 11:04 AM

    Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I agree completely, Betsy and Wendy, that distraction is a great immediate response. Often we have to calm the physical responses to stress before we can get to the deeper work–looking at the causes, as Michael pointed out, or trying the techniques in this article. As with any blog post, we can only scratch the surface of a vast topic, but I was hoping to spark some new ideas for people who have tried distraction and find it to be merely a temporary fix for a long-term problem.

  • Betsy Sansby

    Betsy Sansby

    May 26th, 2015 at 7:21 AM

    Hi Vicki,
    Unfortunately, the best time to build anxiety-reduction tools is between episodes of anxiety or depression. That’s when meditation and other stress-reduction skills can be mastered so that you are less likely to fall into the anxiety groove–what I call the “Spin Cyle.”

    That said, there are things you can do, even with a spinning brain. I’ve created two free tools to retrain your brain. One is called “Dip-Shifting.” The other, I call the “Upsy-Daisy” technique. Both are mindfulness tools that do not require a still mind.

    Dip-shifting can be used to identify your particular anxiety pattern and shift into a more balanced state. The more you practice it, the earlier you can catch yourself before your anxiety takes over. By doing this over and over, you will teach yourself how to interrupt the spin cycle and transform it.

    The second tool works by amplifying positive feelings. Again, it’s a mindfulness tool. Where Dip-Shifting involves noticing and changing negative thoughts, sensations, and exaggerated reactions, the Upsy-Daisy technique involves noticing even subtle, fleeting positives shifts in thinking, feeling, or reacting and amplifying or enlarging those. Basically, what you’re doing is using your already excellent ability to exaggerate (!), only this time, you’re exaggerating positive experiences so they “take up more space.”

    By doing this quick technique, over time and with practice, you can retrain your brain to be on the alert for lifts in dark moods or anxiety and stay with and expand them so they have time to move from short to long-term memory. When this happens, flashes of anxiety leave faster and “positive noticings” are quicker to recall and re-connect with.

    If you want to try them, just go to my website and click on Free Tools. Please let me know how they work for you.

  • Justin Yaros

    Justin Yaros

    May 25th, 2015 at 9:15 PM

    I wish more people understood the importance of turning towards their anxiety. As a therapist, I have become increasingly impressed with Focusing as a way to listen to what your own body has to say. A client of mine had been suffering with severe anxiety most of his life and the only relief he found was through Xanax. When I showed him how to focus and listen to his body, it was the first time he began to feel relief without medication.

  • Betsy Sansby

    Betsy Sansby

    May 26th, 2015 at 12:23 PM

    Hi Justin, I was trained in Focusing by Ann Weiser-Cornell and I agree that it can be very helpful with identifying and naming troubling or confusing states. I just have not found it effective once panic or depression is severe.

  • Betsy Sansby

    Betsy Sansby

    May 26th, 2015 at 12:40 PM

    My message was unfinished, sorry,. For most people with ‘loud’ symptoms, “listening to the body’s messages” is pure torture. Decentering is next to–and in my own case was–impossible until my brain began to heal. I’d love to hear from other sufferers.

  • Robert

    Robert

    June 4th, 2015 at 5:33 PM

    So how do I do this?

  • Yora

    Yora

    May 26th, 2015 at 1:44 PM

    I choose to live in the present, not to worry about the past and things that I can’t change or the future where things are going to happen that I won’t be able to control.

  • Timer

    Timer

    June 5th, 2015 at 12:51 AM

    Robert, that is a good question. I felt compelled to reply because learning how to deal with depression and anxiety it’s a frustrating and daunting process (which has pissed me off at times). So, here’s the deal. The way to learn how to be “mindful” or “live in the present”, is to take part in (for example), DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I was a Psych major and have been in or around depression my whole life, and had never heard of it somehow. It’s not something someone is selling; it’s a type of behavioral therapy that does take a while to learn through group meetings (typically covered by insurance). After you learn the concepts you also will need to remind yourself to utilize these tools until they become second nature. DBT has been in use since it’s development in the 70s. It is typically learned in programs where people go to group meetings for a few hours a day for a month or more. McLean Hospital in Massachusetts has a program based around it, and it’s great. I learned a lot there. Mclean is one of the the absolute top mental health hospitals in the US, and I found their DBT groups to be particularly helpful. The bottom, line is that it’s taught all over the country, and it is a process, and I’m still working on it everyday. If only there were classes in school for children to learn this before it all becomes a problem later in life…

  • Judi

    Judi

    July 4th, 2017 at 7:54 AM

    This is a brilliant idea. I wish I had known this for myself and I would have taught my children. Some teachers use the method and may not use the name. So simple.

  • Joanna

    Joanna

    July 27th, 2015 at 12:09 PM

    Very helpful article for people dealing with anxiety.

  • johnny cash

    johnny cash

    October 4th, 2015 at 1:09 AM

    Sorry but the people who write this stuff have probably never had deep anxiety or panic attacks.
    Some is ok, but hmmm sorry but this may help for mild ish anxiety, and there is different levels of anxiety.

    Hope this helps others tho, as each person is different.
    So what works for one person, might not work for another.
    Peace x

  • Christy

    Christy

    December 16th, 2015 at 1:22 AM

    I really appreciate the article and am going well with the three recommended activities.Thank you!

  • Wasay

    Wasay

    July 25th, 2016 at 1:25 AM

    I can’t stop spinning things in my head I feel anxiety and my heart starts pounding how to stop this?

  • Dennis S.

    Dennis S.

    July 12th, 2017 at 8:32 AM

    Great piece on anxiety

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