It’s the amount of time it takes a pretty decent runner to cover 100 meters.
It’s the amount of time to take a really, really deep breath. In-two-three-four-five. Out-two-three-four-five.
It’s the amount of time it just took me to assemble a perfect bite of yogurt, strawberries, banana, granola onto my spoon. It’s the amount of time it took to chew and swallow that bite.
It is also the amount of time I’m giving myself to think. I should say, to overthink.
I’m a planner, I’m an organizer, and I’m a ruminator. Decisions are carefully made and thought through. I’m not particularly spontaneous (at least without a push), and it’s safe to say I spend more time plotting things out than executing. None of this is inherently bad, of course. There is comfort for me in the planning and the thinking, and by being methodical I can anticipate problems and set myself up for success.
There is a style of thinking that doesn’t serve me as well, and I’m guessing I’m not alone. It’s the death spiral style of thinking. It starts out productively, perhaps I’m pondering what I want to do over the weekend and putting pieces in place for doing whatever it is I want to do. Talk to J, text a friend, sign up for a class, whatever. But then, suddenly, I’ll find myself sitting in a stew of hypotheticals: J has other plans and we get in a fight, so-and-so friend can only meet at the one time I want to run, how will I get downtown, what am I giving up, shouldn’t I, what if…
Not only do my thoughts churn, but I also start feeling the same tension and anxiety over these hypothetical situations as I would if they were actually happening. These feelings will remind me of another time I felt that way, so now I’m ruminating over something that happened in the past that I haven’t quite let go of, adding to the anxiety.
This past weekend, I found myself anxious over making some travel plans for the summer. I had about ten different tabs open to various travel websites, airfares, rental cars, calendars. I think I even asked myself out loud, “Why is this so difficult?” While I meant the logistics of the trip, it made me realize that I’d entered into a death spiral. Now, this surely wasn’t the first time I’ve caught myself in this death spiral, but my reaction to catching myself was different. Instead of berating myself, “oh my god, Erin, stop it,” I was truly curious about how and why my mind had gotten to where it was. Why it was overthinking, considering every possible scenario, considering J’s reaction to the trip, considering how I might feel in each trip option, instead of just booking the trip that made the most sense. I mean, it’s not rocket science. Why was I making it rocket science?
I was then able to turn my thoughts to the true sources of my anxiety, something I could write about, bring up in group, talk about with actual people instead of the voices in my head. All of which are productive, healthy ways to solve a problem. The death spiral way of thinking only brings me anxiety and makes me freeze, because it’s one thing to consider all angles but another thing to drill down the angles so that none of them seem right and no decision can be made. I spend all the time thinking rather than doing.
So. I am trying to catch myself in this death spiral within ten seconds. It’s amazing how much we can think about in only ten seconds. All our thoughts come on top of each other and we sort them out later, so that ten seconds can produce a lot of anxiety. After ten seconds, my mind feels closed and hard and stuck. But if I stop and ask myself what’s really going on, my mind feels free and lighter, able to get to the root of how I’m feeling rather than covering it up with analysis and inner chatter. That’s the kind of thinking I want to have, the kind of thinking that doesn’t feel limiting.
There are two ways I’ve found to escape that death spiral, once I catch myself in it: letting go or reframing.
Letting go happens when I catch myself in the death spiral, realize I’m thinking about something in the past or something super hypothetical that I have no control over, and asking myself why I’m hanging onto it. And then finding ways to let go.
Reframing happens when the death spiral is masking something bigger (like the example I just gave about the trip), and asking myself what the underlying feeling is. And then finding ways to understand the feeling.
I challenge you to look for the death spirals in your mind, and notice when they arise and what they’re trying to tell you. Notice the difference in the way your mind feels when it’s in a death spiral. Try to be curious and forgiving. It’s not easy, but it’s amazing what I’m finding.