* TRIGGER WARNING * If you are currently feeling vulnerable or are at risk of being triggered by a description of an emotional, self-critical spiral, please do not read any further. This post is intended to show how to counteract spiralling thoughts, and the hypothetical negative thoughts expressed in the example may be triggering or upsetting if you are currently feeling low or self-critical. If you do continue to read, please be aware that the example thoughts are deliberately negative in order to illustrate the technique, and they do not reflect how I think you should think about yourself in that situation.
Those of us with BPD know all too well the experience of “spiralling”. Spiralling is basically when you start off with a relatively insignificant thought, but it then “spirals” out of control and the thoughts progress into more upsetting, more overwhelming thoughts.
For those reading this who have not experienced spiralling or are not sure exactly what it means, I’m going to give an example of spiralling that I regularly experienced in the past, and still experience from time to time now (although I have learned some skills to help prevent or reduce the extent of the spiral).
* Trigger warning reminder: Emotional language, self-criticism, negative thoughts *
The initial thought may be sparked by something benign. Maybe I spill a drink. The thought process then goes as follows:
I’ve spilt my drink.
I can’t even pour a drink right.
Why I am so incompetent?
I can’t do anything right.
It’s hardly surprising I don’t have a job.
Why would anyone want to hire me?
I’m never going to have a good job.
I’m never going to make good money.
I’m never going to have a good house.
What have I got to offer someone else?
No one would want me.
I’m never going to be in a relationship again.
I’m going to die alone.
I might as well die now.
Maybe I should just kill myself.
This might seem overdramatic, but this is the literal, involuntary thought process I can experience, and hopefully, you can see and understand how distressing this is.
So what can we do to tackle these thoughts?
Well, the first thing to do is to recognise and acknowledge, as I said before, that thoughts are involuntary. They pop into our minds without warning and we are not responsible or to blame for them.
The second thing to do is to accept that you’re having that thought, and that it’s starting to spiral. Don’t try to push it away – it won’t work. Accept that it’s there.
The next part is where things start to get a little bit more tricky, but it is doable. Start to think about the thought, and ask yourself, is it true? Is there evidence to back this up? With my example, “I can’t even pour a drink right” – is this true? How many drinks have I poured in the past that have been poured neatly and with no spills? Have I never poured a drink right? Of course, the answer is no, I have poured a drink correctly on numerous occasions.
At times, this may be enough to stop the spiral in its tracks, however, if you are still struggling and moving onto the next thought, we can move onto another step. Let’s say I convince myself that I have never in my life poured a drink correctly. My next thought is “Why am I so incompetent?” Again, think about the facts. Is this true? Am I completely incompetent? What is the evidence? Have I never completed a task correctly? Or are there several occasions that I have completed a task correctly? Did I remember to plug my phone into the charger? Yes. Did I send a text with no typos yesterday? Yes. Did I write a blog post? Yes. Gather as much evidence as possible to disprove the thought, no matter how insignificant the evidence may seem. You should find that after a while, you have many, many more examples of times when you were not “incompetent” than times where you weren’t.
Once you have gathered all the evidence, focus on the thought. That thought has now been disproved, so it’s time to let it go. Imagine the thought as a cloud in the sky. Watch the cloud drift across the sky, slowly dissipating into nothingness. If that one doesn’t work, imagine yourself writing the thought on a piece of paper, then throwing it into a fireplace. Imagine yourself watching the paper, and the thought, crackling away in the flames and disintegrating into ash. As the visualised object disappears, let the thought drift away with it. Don’t push it, just let it drift.
I hope this exercise helps you to intercept thought spirals. I’ve found this technique very useful, and while it may not work every time, and sometimes I have got down to the fourth or fifth thought before the evidence has convinced me, it has drastically reduced the number of times I have hit the bottom end of the spiral.
Have you used this technique before? What was your experience? How do you cope with spiralling thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.