Spiralling – The act of continuously feeding into irrational and illogical thoughts, that do not – in any way – serve us.
Sweating, heart palpitation; disorientation, muscle tension; irregular breathing: a list you might rightly identify as the body’s instinctual reaction to danger. Otherwise known as the fight or flight response.
So, you can imagine the kind of confusion I felt when I experienced this reaction walking through my school corridors, sitting in Spanish classes, or even when trying to sleep. Instinctually, one might actively start to avoid situations causing such an adverse reaction, and so, I did.
I negotiated more time off school, disappeared from Spanish class, and even stopped sleeping properly. But clearly, avoidance was not going to tackle the root of my problem.
After some reflection, it seemed that I was having this inflammatory reaction to life itself.
What to do?
What I Talk About When I Talk About Mental Health
Oftentimes, we talk about acceptance of mental health, neurodiversity and dismantling the stigma that surrounds it. But we don’t necessarily admit the sheer amount of work that we must perform on ourselves to function at peak mental health.
Throughout the past year, this pandemic really catapulted us all into a reality where optimal health is a true priviledge.
I’d like to share some genuine systems that I use every day, to not only stop me from spiralling but allow me to function as a fulfilled human being.
#1 Thought Catching
We can envision “thought catching” through two concepts: the thinker and the observer.
Close your eyes, and tune into your thoughts for a second – what can you hear?
If you streamed your flow of consciousness on Spotify, it might sound a little like this: “Did I lock the back door? I should probably check – this is a pretty safe area though, nothing would happen. But what if it does? Better safe than sorry, right?”
Playing back every thought that popped into our head in the last hour, would likely result in a highly anti-climactic experience.
So, how come we attach such great meaning to our thoughts, when they are so fleeting?
Instead of holding onto them, internalizing them, believing they are intrinsic parts of ourselves, we must become critical observers of them.
As radical as it seems, I prefer to refer to myself and my mind as We rather than I. I am the thinker of the thought, and the observer of its existence.
At first, the thought appears: “I don’t deserve my success”, then the observer responds with a rationalising behaviour: “I have worked hard for my success, I am worthy of being here; I accept every success and failure that arrives”.
This was a technique I developed through meditation: watching thoughts pass through my consciousness and being unafraid to criticise my often wayward, child-like, and misguided ego.
So, while you cannot choose your next thought, you can be selective about the ones you listen to.
#2 Letting Go of Narratives That No Longer Serve You
While medication is a standard response to mental health, I think there is also something to be said for Asian philosophies like Taoism that teach us the things we have forgotten in Western society.
Notably, Lao Tzu uses the imagery of a simple cooking pot to suggest that we must not hoard our thoughts as if they were old records, but let go of those that no longer serve us.
He says: “the usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness”. In essence, through cleansing ourselves of our past narratives, we allow ourselves to become who we actually are.
After my first session of yoga, I just laid down in Shavasana (the final pose) and cried. I’m sure my family thought something dubious was going on – I don’t blame them.
I was undergoing such a drastic change in my mind, arriving at this idea that: we waste such vast amounts of energy holding on to stuff. I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before but: let them [your thoughts, worries, precocupations] go.
What a relief.
With further yoga sessions via the Downdog app, I integrated this outlet for anxiety into my day, creating a daily system to deal with built-up stress.
I would highly recommend this practice since there are so many platforms that guide you – even with little to no experience. I’m sure you’ve heard of her, but Yoga with Adriene is a favourite of mine when it comes to online yoga sessions.
#3 “Hell Yes, or No”
As an adult like myself at the ripe old age of 22, we must be selective about how we spend our time.
Maybe you’ve seen the film “Yes Man” with Jim Carey. As the title suggests, he transforms from a hermit, into a man that says “yes” to anything and everything for a year. As you can imagine, this presents fantastic opportunities and dire consequences for him.
Saying yes to every opportunity, was definitely a strategy that I applied to my own life as I navigated my university years. But thanks to Florence Given, I read up on the concept of boundaries that we can employ at an emotional, personal, and professional level.
You can say “no”, and not owe anyone an explanation. You own all of your time.
We are entitled, and owe it to ourselves, to form boundaries between friends, jobs, screens, pets, and even our family. While going with the flow is excellent, the boundaries that you write on the tapestry of your life, ensure that you have a say in the flow.
#4 Doing Things You Enjoy, Not Just Things To Relax
While it’s important to recognise and identify our mental health needs, I do think we must avoid the temptation to reorganise our lives around that sole fact.
In my case, I subconsciously avoided any activity that might function as a potential trigger of my anxiety. To the point where I refused an invitation to a good friend’s party that was happening just across the road from me.
What a bummer.
After washing off the stress of the day, it can be tempting to fill our free time passively consuming TV shows or flicking social media. And while these things are certainly less anxiety-inducing than bungee jumping, for example, that doesn’t mean there is a unanimous method of relaxation.
You know the drill: walking, playing sport, reading, writing, playing an instrument are all great alternatives to how we traditionally conceptualise relaxing.
In fact, I am sure there is nothing more stress-inducing than trying really hard to relax. Often, when we are physically mobile, our mental attention returns to the body rather than the thinking mind, which effortlessly calms us with added enjoyment.
Thanks for making it this far.
I hope you enjoyed this brief summary of my learnings about mental health and preventative coping mechanism. I compiled these systems from a year-long period of journaling and reflecting on the psyche and the mind.
I would love to know what you think in the comments below!
As always, take care and look after yourselves.