A few weeks ago I wrote about the upward spiral, and how focusing on adding positivity can be protective during those times when you start spiraling down toward unwanted behavior. Balancing our built-in negative bias by adding positivity is effective, but there are many other tools you can use when you find yourself spiraling downward.

To understand how this works consider that our brain has more than one feedback loop. The multiple areas of our brain interact with each other and with a myriad of hormones and neurotransmitters to facilitate our thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Small hiccups can throw this process into disarray and start a downward spiral.

It’s important to understand that downward spirals are the natural result of your brain doing it’s work. Even when you spiral all the way into full blown anxiety or depression it’s important to realize that your brain is not broken. According to Alex Corb, Ph.D. it’s natural that sometimes the complexity of our myriad brain interactions becomes stuck. Just like a traffic jam, these jammed brain signals result in a pile-on of related effects.

The good news he says is that the upward spiral is just as responsive and can be jump started with equally small change. Think of it like you do your computer when it needs to be reset.

The following is a partial list of some of the things that can interrupt the downward spiral:

  • Sunlight and other bright light during the day
  • Hugs and other touch including massage
  • Happy memories
  • Memories of ways you have helped others
  • Sleep
  • Fun and laughing
  • Making small decisions
  • Smiling
  • Splashing your face with ice water
  • Gratitude
  • Relaxing your facial muscles
  • Rooting for a team
  • Paying attention to what you can control
  • Deep breaths
  • Not getting overly hungry
  • Upbeat music
  • Writing thank you letters
  • Accepting good enough
  • Being around people, or alternatively if you are an introvert taking a break from being with people
  • Talking to people (vs. texting or email)
  • Warmth – a warm drink, blanket, bath, or sun
  • Avoiding catastrophizing
  • Getting outside or even looking outside
  • Standing up straight
  • Taking a single small step, even if it’s unrelated to your goals (like putting dishes in the dishwasher before attempting to tackle your work)
  • Thinking about what you value
  • Staying focused on what you want rather than what you don’t want
  • Staying in the now
  • Showering and dressing to go out even if you stay in
  • Remaining aware that hormone changes (like during menstruation) can cause disruption
  • Nonjudgmental awareness
  • Focusing on how life will improve if your habits change
  • Physical activity, yoga and stretching
  • Meaningful long term goals
  • Recognizing when you’re overstressed
  • Avoiding temptation (rather than putting yourself in a place of having to actively resist)
  • Avoiding bright lights after sundown
  • Talking to a coach or therapist, or even a friend
  • Writing down your worries.

It’s hard to make good choices when you feel anxious, sad, overwhelmed, empty, or hopeless while caught in a downward spiral. It’s good to know that small, seemingly unrelated actions or thoughts can help get you back on track.

These ideas can work for any type of unwanted mood or behavior, including unwanted eating. Keep this list handy and to add any others that you find helpful.

For more information check out Dr. Korb’s book recommended below.

I’d love to get to know you better. To get on my schedule for an informal talk with no agenda other than understanding your struggles and helping you get unstuck click here. If you need other times, use the contact form linked below.



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For more information on the concept above refer to The Upward Spiral – Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb, Ph.D. It’s a useful resource for anyone with a brain, not just those with depression.

For more resources, check out our Resources page.

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