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The Spiral

Whirlpool in a glass of water

Written by Claire Ranit

There’s this thing that happens sometimes, you might be familiar with it, I like to call it “the spiral.” The spiral happens when my old friend anxiety creeps up; I encounter a particularly stressful event and with compounding momentum become irritable, hypervigilant, worry excessively, have extreme thoughts on all the potential (not always realistic) outcomes, nausea, a sense of doom, and struggle to concentrate on my everyday tasks and relationships. Pretty soon my every waking and (attempted) sleeping moment is consumed by thoughts of this particularly stressful event.

Now, given that you’re a human, I’m going to assume you’ve experienced this too in varying degrees.

When I was younger, and one of my parents was drastically ill for multiple years, the spiral was constant, and I grasped at things that could give me a sense of control. As I got older, I was able to develop more resilience in the face of this and other adversities. They’re still uncomfortable to face, and the spiral still happens, but with less frequency and over shorter periods.

I think what happens sometimes is we get frightened by the spiral, so we try to numb it out. Which is a viable coping option to the body’s stress response system being activated in a situation where fight or flight, what it was designed for, isn’t possible. More and more in our developed society we face stressors that we can’t fight and from which we can’t run. So often we numb. The problem is, as eloquently stated by Dr. Brene Brown, we can’t selectively numb only the uncomfortable emotions – fear, anxiety, shame, worry, dread. By numbing the uncomfortable emotions, we also numb the emotions we so often desire – joy, love, calm, happiness.

Then what do we do? The spiral can be scary, it’s certainly not enjoyable, and we know we will eventually face adversity. So, I suggest building resilience. It’s one of the biggest places of control we have as an antidote to the spiral. It encourages a consistent practice and focus in wellbeing and can also help develop skills that can be used when we find ourselves in the spiral.

Dr. Bob Doppelt lays it out in a very easy to understand stepwise process in The Resilient Growth Model. Dr. Doppelt’s model approaches resilience through the lens of climate change but the values are applicable when facing any adversity. 

Ground – and center yourself by stabilizing your nervous system.

  • Tap into your emotional intelligence skills and the things that help you regulate after you’ve been stressed. For me, this often starts with breath.

Remember – your personal strengths, resources, and social support network.

  • Know and have confidence in your own strengths. Be able to name your resources and willing to ask other people for help.

Observe – your reaction to and thoughts about the situation without judgement and with compassion.

  • Our brains are hard-wired for extreme thoughts and hypervigilance when we feel threatened. Bring awareness to this human process. 

Watch – for new insights and meaning in life.

Tap – into the values you want to live by in the midst of adversity.

  • When we’re threatened it’s often hard to live by the values that are important to our own identity. These values can be different for each person. For me it includes things like kindness, compassion, understanding, respect, and patience towards myself and others.

Harvest – hope for new possibilities by making choices that increase wellbeing.

  • This is a space for empowerment. In every situation we have choice, we may not like the choices, but we have choice. When you’re facing adversity, find those spaces where you can make choices to increase your own wellbeing while you face the challenge.

Having faced adversity through this approach, though not always with this wonderful framework, I’m better able to face it each time. The spiral still happens but it doesn’t run off with my brain. Now, I find the more I practice, the more this process happens automatically. Sometimes I’ll find myself grounding before I’ve even noticed the stressor. But it’s a practice, I don’t always do it perfectly, and that is completely ok. I find myself being open to vulnerability and I also find myself experiencing more joy.