“When you’re in the middle of a thought spin out, your mind’s brakes are overridden by the nervous system. Here’s how to correct that.”
How to Stop a Thought Spin Out
Hello, Gorgeous Soul.
Today I want to talk about thought spin outs.
Here’s how I describe a thought spin out. When one anxious fear thought shows up and before you can grab the thought to manage it, it’s already spun off to another thought and another thought and another thought.
Thought spinouts feel like anxiety, they feel out of control.
Most of the time in a spin out, the thoughts are fast and furious. They feel very very urgent and very very true and your sympathetic nervous system is like “looks like we’ve got a major emergency happening….let’s shut off all the higher level thinking and just survive here.”
Once that sympathetic nervous system is activated, the thoughts aren’t in your control. Not until your body signals that the emergency is over.
It’s very similar to when your car spins out on the ice.
Has that ever happened to you?
I have a vivid memory of driving to school back when I was in high school and I hit a patch of black ice. Now listen, I learned to drive in the midwest where you basically HAD to know how to drive in snow because the sun doesn’t ever come out to melt it, so it’s just like 4 months of crappy driving conditions.
So I’m driving and there’s a car in front of me and a car behind me. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until the car in front of me starts spinning. We’re just in a neighborhood so we’re not going too fast so I’m not too worried until my car goes over the same patch of ice and starts spinning AND the car behind me, attempts to stop and starts spinning.
Slipping and sliding on the snow is very different than hitting an ice patch.
Before you even know what’s happening you’re spinning. Your body is immediately in panic mode. You try to pump the brakes and they’re doing nothing at all.
The ice is in charge.
This is how a thought spin out feels too.
By the time you realize it’s happening, you’re already in it. Your body is panicking, the adrenaline is pumping through your body and it feels like no matter how hard you try to stop it, you can’t seem to gain control back from the scary anxious thoughts.
Trying to pump the breaks is useless.
When you spin out, pumping the brakes is not only useless, it makes things worse.
When you’re in the middle of a thought spin out, the brakes, which work under normal conditions, have been overridden by the nervous system.
When the emergency chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol start getting pumped into the body, the higher level thinking, the ability to reason and problem solve,, shuts down.
Trying to THINK yourself out of a spin out is like trying to use the brakes on black ice…it’s just not gonna happen because in that moment, it CAN’T.
What to do then?
First, I want you to keep this part in mind….the BEST way to handle spin outs is to practice the skills that will prevent spin outs in the first place OR recover from spin outs quicker.
The truth is We’re never going to eradicate anxious thoughts, but the more regularly you are practicing the skills of nervous system regulation, emotional regulation AND mindset awareness when you’re NOT ACTIVELY spinning out, the easier it will be to access these tools when you need them.
So first and foremost learn those skills. PRACTICE those skills. Get BETTER at those skills and you will have WAY less spin outs and WAY less overall anxiety.
Now even the MOST efficient self regulator has a human brain and finds themself in a thought spin out now and then.
Common times these spin outs happen: right before you go to sleep, middle of the night, when you’re not feeling well, when you’re tired, when your gas tank is empty, when you haven’t been practicing self care.
So let’s talk about what to actually do when it does happen.
1. Don’t resist the spin.
I’m not saying give IN to the spin, I’m not saying do NOTHING. I’m telling you that the more you FREAK out about FREAKING out the harder you’ll spin.
It’s like when your car is spinning on the ice, what you’re NOT supposed to do is slam on the brakes or crank the steering wheel to the side to get out of it. You’re supposed to be gentle. Gently try the brakes. Gently try to straighten the wheel. But the more you panic, the more that car will do what you DON’T want.
Once you have the awareness that you’re in a thought spin out, remember that resisting it, trying to THINK your way out of it will bring you a more intense spin. We’re just going to be gentle and kind, instead of adding to the intensity. We’re gonna take it down towards that sweet spot in the center of the Calm AF scale which is going to stop the spin way faster than yelling at yourself to stop.
Resisting the spin of anxiety thoughts is like stomping the brakes when your car spins out on an icy road. It only compounds the problem.
2. Ask yourself a yes/no question.
IS this an emergency?
Am I ACTUALLY in an emergency?
Is this happening in real life?
OR Is it happening in my head?
No there’s no emergency happening in this moment. Yes this is just happening in my mind.
99% of the time, there is no emergency.
If it’s not an emergency, the third thing you’re gonna do is…
3. Take a few DEEP – and I mean, DEEP – breaths.
Now listen. If you are panicky telling yourself “BREATHE BREATHE BREATHE” that’s not gonna do it. So many times when people tell me “breathing just doesn’t work for me” but that’s just because you’re thinking that these 3 deep breaths are going to down regulate you right back to feeling calm again immediately.
That’s not how it works.
How deep breathing works is that it signals the parasympathetic nervous system that whatever danger WAS present has passed because the breathing has regulated again. It’s not a matter of it working or not, it’s a chemical reaction in our body BUT when you try three deep breaths and they don’t bring you back to center your PANIC thoughts are like “IT”S NOT WORKING I”M NOT CALM and the sympathetic is triggered again.
Do mindfully slow your breath so that your nervous system gets the message that it can stop.
4. Narrate the facts.
You want to try and move your awareness into the perceived fear happening in your head to what is ACTUALLY happening in the present moment. The simplest way to get out of the head and back into the body is to narrate the FACTS of the present moment. What is a FACT is that I am lying in my bed. I am wearing pajamas. I am in my bedroom. What is a FACT is that I can see the window. What is a FACT is that I can feel the breeze from the ceiling fan. It is a FACT that I’m not in danger in this moment, I’m just experiencing a spin out.
Last suggestion here is to do a brain dump, which is just a type of journaling where you are simply dumping the thoughts out of your head onto paper. It’s not like trying to solve a problem journaling or even trying to feel better journaling. It is just like get these pesky thoughts OUT of here. When you write them down, you HAVE to slow down, you can’t write as fast as the thoughts spin, so it slows the whole thing down.
Now if these work and your nervous system regulates, you get yourself out of a spin out THEN you can go ahead and notice your thoughts, question them, access your higher level thinking, try and grab a rewired thought.
how to stop a thought spin out
1. Do not resist the spin out.
2. Ask yourself a YES / NO question.
3. Take a few DEEP, MINDFUL breaths.
4. Narrate the facts.
So that’s how you stop or slow a spin out.
But a very common thing that happens after a spin out is that there is still a LOT of chaotic energy and feelings that are ping-ponging around your body. Like you aren’t spinning so intensely but you ARE still feeling the effects.
If that’ the case, you’re probably gonna have to get up and move those feelings through and out.
There are several ways you can do this.
One is to literally move your body. The feelings are happening INSIDE your body so you can move them by moving your body.
Stand up and shake your arms, your hands, your feet, your legs. Roll your shoulders, wiggle your toes and your fingers. Stretch your body. Jump. Blow raspberries.
The most important thing to remember here is that your BODY will totally tell you what it needs. It will tell you if you need to hit the punching bag versus do a downward dog. It will tell you whether you need to put on your headphones and dance it out versus sit down and meditate. Your body is the BEST teacher on how to release. You just have to trust it.
Sometimes you need to distract yourself. Not numb out, not like oh if you still feel spinn-y just start scrolling. I mean you might need to slap yourself out of it.
Not literally. But Whenever I think about distracting a spinning out mind I think of the movie Airplane. If you haven’t seen it, omg watch it. But there’s a scene where this woman is panicking and the flight attendant is trying to calm her down but she’s too hysterical to even hear the flight attendant’s words so finally the flight attendant SLAPS her across the face. And then the camera pans and you see this long line of people waiting for their turn to slap this woman across the face.
Sometimes we need to abruptly DISTRACT our brains out of a spin out. Obviously don’t slap yourself or hurt yourself but do something surprising or shocking. Maybe splash some ice cold water on your face. Dunk your head under the faucet. Run out into the snow with barefoot.
I looooove using humor as a distraction. Nothing like a good laugh to regulate the nervous system.
I also love using music or sound. There’s so many options on Spotify. I LOVE brown noise. I honestly don’t understand how it’s different from white noise or pink noise but if I wake up in the middle of the night and my thoughts even THINK about spinning, I grab my AirPods and put 12 hours of brown noise on and I swear I feel like I took a Benadryl. I’m like ohhhhh I’m getting so sleepyyyyyy.
So there you go. The next time you’re trying to fall asleep and your brain is like “WAIIIIT YOU FORGOT TO FREAK OUT ABOUT ALL THESE THINGS” you’ve got a whole bunch of tools.
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