brassmonkey

Dealing With Emotional Spirals

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Dealing with Emotional Spirals

 

One very common symptom of tapering antidepressants is ruminating thoughts. The incessant reliving and rehashing of things that just happened or happened many years ago and have been long forgotten, until now.  It starts innocently enough with having a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.  You used to love grilled cheese, except for that time your brother took it and smeared ketchup all over it. That wasn’t nice of him. Like that time, he wouldn’t stop teasing me, and he was always changing the channel on the TV when I was watching something.  He was always hitting me and breaking my stuff. I HATE my brother and want to hurt him.  All because you had a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.

 

Welcome to the Emotional Spiral, or in this case as I call it “The Anger Spiral”.  I made up the term a few years ago to identify something I kept experiencing. By giving it a name I was able to isolate the set of reactions, learn what caused them and how to control them.  The sequence of events of The Anger Spiral is not isolated to just anger.  They are common in a lot of emotional thinking, anger, hate, love, lust, anxiety and panic attacks to name a few.

 

Once the dynamics of The Spiral are learned and understood they can be applied to many, many different things.  It is then possible to learn to control those things and defuse unpleasant and possibly dangerous situations.  This control will then reduce the stress of our everyday lives, improve relationships and make our jobs and careers more pleasant.

 

I will be breaking this essay into a series of smaller posts to make it more accessible.  Some of the posts will be rather short while others will be quite long.  Read through them at your own speed so you can absorb all the information, but please read through all the posts to get the full story.

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The Anger Spiral is one specialized case of The Emotional Spiral and will be the easiest to use as an example.  The Emotional Spiral follows the same progression but deals with emotions and situations other than anger. Spiral progressions are quite common in panic attacks, health anxiety and muscle tics, in fact many of the things we experience during ADWD.  Anything that can be worried about or cause an emotional response is susceptible to Spiral thinking.

 

Let’s take a closer look at the dynamics of The Emotional Spiral

 

There are three main parts to The Spiral:

 

1. The Trigger,

 

2. The Escalation,

 

3. The Explosion.

 

Each has its own feel and place in the progression.  If any one of them is diverted, the Spiral can be stopped in its tracks.

 

The Trigger is going to be something that is innocuous. 

 

A situation happens, someone cuts you off in traffic, someone says something that you misinterpret, you’re playing with your favorite pet, you have an unexpected heart palpitation. Just about anything can be a trigger. Sometimes it will be the ruminating thoughts themselves. It just must be something that starts the thought process.  Once you begin analyzing and trying to find your triggers a common thread will frequently appear.  This pattern will help later as you work on taking control.

 

I’m a highly creative person and have spent my life developing the skills that allow me to design and make almost anything. I tend to be very defensive of my skills. For a long time any “perceived” questioning of my abilities would act as a trigger.  “Perceived” is in quotes because it is very important. I’m also a very private person and very protective of my personal space.  “Perceived” violations of that space are another major trigger for me. Again “Perceived”.

 

Let’s go back to the first example of having a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.

 

“You used to love grilled cheese, except for that time your brother took it and smeared ketchup all over it. That wasn’t nice of him. Like that time, he wouldn’t stop teasing me, and he was always changing the channel on the TV when I was watching something.  He was always hitting me and breaking my stuff. I HATE my brother and want to hurt him.  All because you had a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.”

 

This is a classic example of how the spiral works. It starts with an innocuous event, having lunch, something you do every day.  The grilled cheese was a childhood favorite and brings a smile to your face as you remember eating them so long ago.  The mind and memory are a tricky place to spend any time and it seems to be human nature to try to find the negative in any good situation.

 

So, your pleasant memory is spoiled by the thought of your brother taking your good lunch and making it taste bad by adding ketchup to it. This is the triggering thought that sets off the Emotional Spiral.  More accurately it’s your reaction to that memory, the “perceived” injustice of your brother’s act that is the trigger.

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The Escalation is the heart of the Spiral.

 

During this phase your mind will make a lot of irrational associations, they will seem rational at the time but they’re not. These irrational associations then build on each other, reinforce each other, and compound the emotions or sensations. Spiraling, if you will, out of control and ultimately leading to an uncontrolled release of emotion.

 

 

Let’s continue with the first example of having a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.

 

 

“You use to love grilled cheese, except for that time your brother took it and smeared ketchup all over it. That wasn’t nice of him. Like that time, he wouldn’t stop teasing me, and he was always changing the channel on the TV when I was watching something.  He was always hitting me and breaking my stuff. I HATE my brother and want to hurt him.  All because you had a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.”

 

 

This is a classic example of how The Spiral works.  It starts with an innocuous event, having grilled cheese for lunch.  The Spiral was triggered by the “perceived” injustice of your brother’s action of taking it and putting ketchup on it.  Your mind then starts to dig up every bit of dirt it has on your brother.  Even good memories will be twisted to suit the Spiral's purpose.  With each new thought your resentment grows and the anger within you starts to smolder.  Building over the course of time, it could be a few minutes or a few hours.  I’ve experienced spirals that took several days to build. 

 

 

The resentments and feelings of injustice and indignation grow and compound on each other.  It takes a huge amount of energy to build and maintain this anger and that mental fatigue adds to the mix.  Finally, every little act, bumping a doorway or mistyping on the computer is upsetting.  The Spiral is out of control.

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The Explosion is the final release of the emotion.

 

I refer to it as The Explosion because I developed this concept while working with Anger Issues that frequently ended with an explosive outcome.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be an explosion.  For some The Explosion will be a crying jag, an angry outburst or a full-blown panic attack.  It all depends on the type of Spiral that is being experienced.

 

This can be a very cathartic experience, seemingly rewarding and can build positive associations.  All the emotion and energy built up by The Spiral is released in one outburst.  Having all that roiling energy, once released, feels good at that moment, but it’s not without payback.  There frequently is a “hangover” that follows and can last several days.  During this time a person will feel totally drained, devoid of emotion, lacking in energy and motivation.  Small wonder since it was all expended by The Spiral and must be rebuilt and stabilized.

 

Oddly enough this “hangover” can trigger another Spiral.  Starting the process all over again and leaving the person even more drained at its conclusion.  This starts up an endless loop of Emotional Spirals that leave the victim in a deep dark pit that is very hard to climb out of.

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So how can we learn to control such a destructive thought process?

 

There are four steps:

 

1. Identify that it's happening,

 

2. Defuse the situation,

 

3. Change the channel,

 

4. Go on with life.

 

Identifying the situation can be hard at first because it's very easy to fall into The Spiral.  A person needs to go through the entire cycle several times to identify the pattern and understand the progression.  I find that I can be well into the pattern before I realize that it's happening again.  Learning what one’s triggers are is a good place to start and previsualizing situations where those triggers might occur.  That way a person can "keep on guard" when those situations arise.

 

Previsualizing situations must be done with care, because it is essentially setting off a trigger on purpose.  It is very easy for the previsualization secession to get out of hand starting The Spiral off and running.  For a lot of people this could be called overthinking a situation.

 

It's frequently the little things that set a Spiral off.  Getting cut off in traffic, a coworker’s off comment, someone’s tone of voice.  When a spiral has ended, I try to go back and coldly analyse it to see what the trigger was for future reference.

 

Thought processes are a highly individual and private thing.  No one can really know what you’re thinking.  The thoughts we are looking at as triggers are our reactions to various stimuli.  It’s not the stimulus itself, but rather our “perception” of it and reaction to it.  We all have nasty people in our lives, people who will say mean things just to get a reaction.  They’re naturally triggers, we know it and can generally handle them accordingly.  Then there are the people we know who wouldn’t purposefully hurt us or just plain strangers.

 

They’re the unintentional and accidental triggers that can cause a lot of Spirals.  It’s all due to our “perception” of the situation.  You’re standing in line at the grocery checkout.  You made a little effort to look nice this morning because you feel bad and thought it might help your attitude.  The friendly person behind you acknowledges your efforts by saying “My, don’t you look nice this morning.”  You “perceive” a compliment and feel better.

 

However, the friendly person is chewing gum at the time.  That gum causes them to swallow in midsentence so it comes out like “My, don’t you look…….nice this morning.” That little pause, caused by an accidental swallow, changes your “perception” of a compliment to an insult.  It reminds you of the time your Aunt Sally, who had a cold, kept insulting your cooking because something “smelled funny”.  From there the thoughts snowball and The Spiral is out of control, wrecking your entire day and causing a major fight with your significant other.

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Everyone has heart palpitations from time to time.  They’re a very common sensation in healthy people.  For people going through ADWD they are all too common.  They are, however, nothing more than a muscle/nerve tic that is harmless.  Again, our “perception” of the situation comes into play.

 

Many people going through ADWD will have one of two reactions to a heart palpitation.  Both of which will cause an Emotional Spiral. One reaction is OMG I’m having a Heart Attack” while the other is “OMG I having a Panic Attack”.  Neither of which is correct, but both of which will trigger an Emotional Spiral that will quickly turn into a Panic Attack, but luckily not a Heart Attack.  It’s all in how they react to that first twinge of a palpitation.

 

These are just a couple of examples of how our “perceptions” of and reactions to an innocuous trigger can cause us to Spiral out of control.  These ideas can be applied to many of our feelings and reactions to life’s situations.  Watching for and learning one’s triggers is key to controlling Emotional Spirals. 

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Defusing the situation is very important especially in "confrontations".  This is a matter of self-preservation because Anger Spirals have a bad habit of escalating to violence, and that has a lot of ramifications.  The person who is angry is often deemed the "bad guy".  The one who hits first is always in the wrong, and the like.  Because we're in an Anger Spiral that has put us in the center of things, according to society, we have to "control our selves".  So, finding ourselves in a bad situation causing and caused by our Anger Spiral we must take control and make things right.  

 

Trying to talk our way out of it won't work, The Spiral is in control of things, making it so we can't think clearly.  The best option, if at all possible, is to just walk away.  It is much better to be seen as rude than violent.  Turn, walk away, relax, regroup and if necessary re-approach the subject from a different angle (work related things you just can't get out of) otherwise drop it and move on.

 

No matter how justified you feel with the course of action you want to take, it’s the Anger Spiral taking control and you can’t let it.  Becoming angry or overly emotional is a luxury that none of us can afford.  Even if they’re right, the person who is angry or overly emotional will be perceived as wrong, out of control and will carry the blame for the situation.

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Changing the Channel.

 

The key aspect of the Anger Spiral or Emotional Spiral is uncontrolled ruminating thoughts.  Once the trigger happens it sets off a series of mental events that build out of control.  There is the initial trigger which is frequently followed with a small flash of anger and then dropped.   A few minutes later the ruminating thoughts kick in with an "I should have..." followed closely by "that's like when....." "those b******s" , "I always get treated like this..."  all these thoughts swirling around and compounding each other.  

 

Changing the channel at "I should have..." is the best way out, but it can be done effectively at any point in The Spiral.   As soon as one realizes that The Spiral is happening, changing the channel is called for.  I frequently use a stern "don't go there" close my eyes, take a deep breath and concentrate on what I was originally doing.   While distracted I do deep breathing and progressive relaxation to regain control of my body.  It can take several tries to get control back and I need to keep an eye on things so The Spiral doesn't try to sneak in several hours later.  This is the part that takes a lot of practice but with time becomes second nature and very effective.

 

The process is called “Changing the Channel” because that is exactly what you do.  Just like on a television set, you change the program and watch something different.  Then every time your brain tries to start up The Spiral again you switch back to the different program.  It could be as easy as actually watching a TV show, concentrating on work, going for a walk, anything to take your mind off what has just happened and the associated thought patterns.

 

This is where the practice comes in.  Emotional Spirals can be very powerful and want to keep coming back.  At first Changing the Channel will be a very active process requiring diligent observation of your thought process and constant fine tuning.  As The Spiral loses its power the task will become easier.  With practice, the more times you take control, the easier the process will become.  The actual mental process can only be explained, to learn and understand it we all must go through it several times and figure out what works for us and for each particular situation.  Each time The Spiral is acknowledged and the channel changed the process becomes easier.

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Go On with life once the spiral has been broken.  

 

The event has happened, it was controlled, it's in the past, move on.  Later, after things have had a while to calm down, the situation can be reviewed in a rational manner to understand how it progressed and what worked to defuse it.  It now becomes a learning situation.  During this analysis, it is important to use a cold eye to avoid retriggering The Spiral..

 

It's very important to move on.  Dwelling on the situation is a very good way to retrigger The Spiral.  The event is now in the past and has no bearing on you and to think about it is to give it power over you.  This is where mindfulness and living in the moment come into play.  But that’s another topic.

 

Emotional Spirals are a common symptom of Antidepressant Withdrawal.  They can be triggered by the most innocuous of situations and can be all consuming, detrimental and very draining.  They can however, be defused and controlled by understanding what triggers them and acting accordingly.  The process requires some self-discovery and practice, but once learned is very effective in gaining control over runaway emotions and gives a person a skill set that can be translated into many situations and will be useful for a lifetime.

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There are a variety of things we commonly experience during ADWD that are very similar to The Emotional Spiral, and can trigger or can contribute to one.  They are so common in our situation that they bear mentioning in their own rights.

 

One common form of Emotional Spiral experienced during ADWD is often referred to as the “Doom Cloud” Starting with some neuroemotions of fear that escalate through The Spiral ending not in an explosion, but rather in a deep black depression or dread, that is very difficult to break out of.  This can be a hard one to work with because of the neuroemotional trigger, but it can be minimized with the same techniques.

 

Another one that is very similar to the Doom Cloud is Morning Dread. Waking up with an overpowering feeling of fear.  There is a lot more involved with it due to cortisol cycles, neuroemotions and the like, but the experience frequently acts as a trigger.  This sets off an Emotional Spiral that makes the situation a lot worse than it already is and prevents the dread from running its course and self-resolving over the rest of the morning.  It also sets up a fear response that can trigger insomnia and a self-fulfilling response that increases the likelihood of it happening again the next morning.

 

I mentioned heart palpitations earlier.  These are a very large contributor to panic attacks because they can be a significant symptom during a panic attack.  If they are misperceived, these sensations, which will last only a few seconds, can trigger a panic attack that can last for hours.  So, we’re back to “perceptions.  Many panic attacks can be stopped dead in their tracks by following the steps outlined above.  It’s all in how you react to the trigger.

 

Akathisia is one of the most dreaded but luckily not one of the most common symptoms people in ADWD can experience.  It is based in the wiring of the nervous system so it has a physical/chemical cause which makes it an actual physical phenomenon.  It can’t be controlled in the same manner as an Emotional Spiral.  But, our reaction to it can.  Combining the techniques above with a healthy dose of mindfulness and living in the moment can greatly reduce the severity of an attack.

 

ADWD and tapering seem to last forever.  We all want our lives back and we all want to feel better.  The Frustration caused by this and many other factors can be overwhelming at times.  This frustration can easily trigger an Emotional Spiral that will manifest in a variety of ways, anger, despondency, loss of hope, depression and more.  All of which are compounded by the Emotional Spiral.  Breaking the Spiral will help to control this frustration.

 

I have given several examples of Emotional Spirals and how they affect us in ADWD.  These are just a few of the many ways they can affect our lives.  By paying attention to situations, triggers and our reactions to them we can greatly reduce the stress we experience, improve our relationships and our overall quality of life.

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These spirals can apply to a number of other symptoms, too.

 

Insomnia spirals - the more you ruminate on sleep, the deeper the insomnia hooks go.

 

Akathisia spirals - the more anxious you are about it, the worse it gets, and it ramps up.

 

Rumination spirals - need I say more?

 

Thank you Brassmonkey for an excellent tool for our members to "dial it down" when things are ramping up!

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This is very interesting.  I definitely get these with obsessive thoughts.  I have the hardest time changing the channel and I also do not see these thoughts as my own either.  For me, I have a very large disconnect between the unwanted spiral of thoughts and how I really feel about things.  I can't even follow how I would actually think the things I do sometimes.  Deep breathing has been the most helpful thing for me.  That and also accepting that sometimes I can't change the channel but I can not be so worried about watching a channel I don't like.  

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Thanks Brass for this,

 

I definitely recognise the emotional spiral thought pattern, and have "been there" so many times. The CBT I was having in Canada, was intended to help with the panic attack fear spirals I was experiencing.

 

Since moving back to the UK earlier this year, I have experienced several months straight of ruminating thought spirals (health anxiety and negative thoughts in general).

 

Now, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to have weekly counseling sessions, so hope to be able to get a handle on both of those. I have also "signed up" for the free NHS "Talking Therapies", where I hope to get regular CBT.

 

Onwards.

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Great series of posts Brassmonkey, we need a like or up-vote button on this site :)

 

For me, the secondary anxiety caused by spiraling thoughts and emotions, which were triggered by symptoms, was so unbearable, I seemed to automatically block them because my sanity and survival seemed to depend on it. I already had too much chemical fear and couldn't tolerate any added cognitive anxiety on top.

 

Its easy to become taken over by these spirals, even for people not in withdrawal, I used to find myself caught up in them all the time. Now, not so much. At first it was only in hindsight that I could look back at what happened and analyze the process. But now I'm getting good at noticing I've been triggered almost as soon as it happens. The emotional response to the trigger has become an automatic cue for me to step back emotionally from the situation and take a look at what might really be happening. But its taken some time and practice to get to this stage, but so worth doing the work. I now rarely get dragged into stressful, conflict filled encounters which would leave me drained for hours, sometimes days.

 

But in withdrawal, not only can its symptoms act as triggers, but many of us have declining cognitive abilities during waves, making this kind of advanced self insight and behavior modification almost impossible... but necessary if we are going to avoid the added stress of secondary emotional responses.

 

I like to think of withdrawal as an opportunity for taking an advanced CBT course. Once we master the skills under these challenging circumstances, we will be set for life.

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This is quite possibly the best essay series out there dealing with ADWD. Thank you!

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I am currently dealing with many of the mentioned emotions.  Several years ago when I was working with an excellent PCP (who went on to bigger things) she suggested that I check into Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.  I could not pursue it at that time due to other commitments, but have recently completed a course in it.  It is meditation based and I know that turns lots of people off.  I still find it hard to make the time to meditate, but have been journaling and have found that it is a form of meditation for me, as it makes me slow down and think about what is going on.  With the anxiety I have a hard time slowing down enough to think about what is going on, but when I write about it and get it down on paper it tends to help get it out of my mind and allow me to go on.  Good luck to my fellow sufferers.  If only we had known.

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Hi lookingforhelp, and welcome to SA.  You might like to start an Intro topic so we can get to know you and support you in your journey.

 

For other members, here is the link to SA's topic Journalling - Therapeutic Writing & Health Benefits

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Thank you for this brass monkey...

Will keep re-reading it over an over till it sinks in!

Very good write up an so very true.

Am finding everything to be a trigger at the moment.

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I glad you read it Pink, the ideas can be applies to so many things. Feeling that everything is a trigger can happen when things get over whelming.  So instead of concentrating on finding the triggers, move to the next step, 2. The Escalation.  Work on recognizing what is happening with your body and associating those feelings with the spiral.  How are you reacting to those triggers and the thoughts that they produce. You don't have to understand the triggers to start getting control of the spiral.

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very helpful thanks

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Thanks for sharing this! It speaks to me and I am going to follow it closely. Just wonderful!!

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Well put, my problem is my pride and the discernment to know when I am over reacting or when I am protecting my dignity/space be it what you will. That I haven't learned yet. Also, do you worry that by 'changing the channel ' you may internalise anger thereby compounding the issue?

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The point of changing the channel is the move away from the anger so it can have a chance to dispell itself.

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I just wanted to say thank you again, brass, for this great series of essays. They are very helpful. It has become one of my most shared threads on here.

 

SJ

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Thanks for sharing, those things happen especially while I was in deep depression.

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Great thread and info!  It's really helped me to identify my thought process and what's happening.  As I taper I find that my neural emotions and spirals are getting less frequent and with less intensity.  

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BrassMonkey,

Do you have this "system" in a PDF file? Would love to have a one location to refer to and learn from. Does this ever go away? Is it a constant learning battle to deal with these emotions? This has been, BY FAR, the worst part of my withdrawal.

Thank you for this!

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This is very helpful and validating. I've never ruminated so relentlessly as when I've been dealing with withdrawal. And reinstating the AD didn't help right away.  I tend to try to "argue" with the rumination--mine usually involve having made a mistake, or decisions I made years and years ago. That becomes a part of the spiral and makes it worse. I love that this gives me permission to LET IT GO, distract, soothe, whatever I need to do to stop the spiral. I've been using DBT skills, which have been helpful. Also, YOGA!  Thank you for this information!! 

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Not directly on the subject of emotional spirals, but definitely related...

 

I find that I just cannot stop my mind from thinking anymore, and that every thought revolves around or relates back to recovering from withdrawal.

 

What do normal people think about? I seem to have forgotten! Sometimes I would just like to turn my mind off. I'm open to suggestions on how to do that!

 

SJ

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