“You are not your thoughts.” 

That’s one of my go-to statements when I begin working with a client who reports anxiety as the reason bringing them to therapy, whether it’s a mom early in postpartum or a mom of school-aged kids. It’s true, you are not your thoughts, yet for those who experience anxiety in any form, it can feel all-consuming, and if not managed quickly, can turn into an anxiety spiral. Fear not; anxiety is a normal response to stress and danger. Like all emotions, your anxiety is trying to tell you something. 

We all experience bouts of anxiety or anxious thoughts; not necessarily to the degree of a diagnosis, but we all have them at some point or another. We’re human, and planning for our future or thinking of a “worst case scenario” is part of living in our modern world. We’re constantly running around, overscheduled and driven by outcomes and success. We feel the pressure to achieve and seek perfectionism. How can anyone survive these standards and expectations without feeling a bit stressed out or anxious? According to Motherly’s 2022 State of Motherhood survey, 38% of mothers surveyed reported burnout. Burnout can certainly lead to an anxiety spiral.

Related: Anxiety in motherhood: How I learned to calm and control my fears

And anxiety doesn’t discriminate, whether you’re working outside the home or inside, pregnant with your first or a seasoned mother of three. It can hit anyone, at any time (yet certainly there are qualifiers that make some more prone to anxiety than others).

If your anxious thoughts and feelings are starting to interfere with your life on a daily basis, I recommend you reach out to a therapist for more focused support. This article is not intended as medical advice.

Here’s how to spot an anxiety spiral—and stop one from happening. 

What is an anxiety spiral?

A little anxiety isn’t a bad thing; it can actually be incredibly helpful and contribute to us making healthy and safe decisions like canceling a playdate when the other mother reports their child has a runny nose and gentle cough but would still love to hang out. 

Yet when anxiety becomes all-consuming and you feel powerless to it, you might describe the feeling as being in a spiral. (Side note: A spiral is not a clinical term and not the same thing as a panic attack, however some might use these terms interchangeably. A spiral is defined very personally to those who experience it and the description below is not all-inclusive.)

How to spot an anxiety spiral

An anxiety spiral is often ignited by a triggering event, something that serves as the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Before you know it, you’re deep in your thoughts, your heart is racing, your breathing becomes shallow and you might feel sweaty. 

That triggering event has just set off the amygdala in your brain (the fight, flight or freeze response) and suddenly you have cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline pulsing through your body and you’re having difficulty calming yourself down. Your thoughts become intrusive and, at times, downright scary. 

What can feel most paralyzing is your inability to stop the spiral—even when you feel it happening. 

Maybe it’s that you’ve got to answer a couple of work emails but your preschooler is melting down. You’re feeling overwhelmed and pulled in too many directions. You feel your blood pressure rise, your heart start racing and your breathing intensifies. Que the spiral of irrational thoughts…

I’m so incapable. I’m letting everyone down. Ugh, I’m failing at everything. I’m such a bad mom. And a horrible employee.

Related: To the mama doing SO much she feels like she’s failing at everything—I see you

You throw all your expectations out the door, cave in and put on a TV show. You feel guilty, but you have to knock out those email deadlines. 

Here go the thoughts again…Now you’re really in it; wracked with guilt and shame.

I promised myself I’d be more constructive with screen time. It’s way too much television. I’m letting my child down. I should be able to do more.

The thoughts just popped up in your mind; you heard them but couldn’t stop them. Your body felt the stress and your behavior changed to manage the stressors. 

anxiety spiral
Wikimedia Commons

Often used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a CBT triangle shows the connection between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Ultimately, it illustrates how our thoughts change the way that we feel, which then changes the way that we act, which in turn, influences our thoughts. Without intervention, this process continues to repeat, hence the spiral.

5 steps to stop an anxiety spiral

So what should you do when a spiral strikes? Here’s how to get grounded.

1. Name your thoughts 

This can be so powerful. Begin to identify your thoughts as anxious thoughts and label them as such like “I am having anxious thoughts.” Simply by distancing ourselves from the emotion of the thought itself, we can begin to feel more in control.  “This is me spiraling.” You can do the same when you are in the thick of it; pretend you are observing yourself and sportscast your experience.

2. Get curious, not judgmental 

It’s easy for us to quickly judge ourselves for our inability to manage our stress. “Why am I reacting this way?” and then even worse, comparing ourselves to others, “Ellie never gets overwhelmed by all she does and she handles more than me!” Instead, work towards asking yourself to explore the “why” behind the anxiety. What is a need you have that you are ignoring? Even if it is simply that you have too much on your plate, acknowledging that can feel validating.

Related: 8 calming techniques you and your kids can do together

3. Practice normalizing your experience and validating yourself 

If you haven’t shared your anxious moments with others in your village (which I strongly recommend!), you can even do this by yourself, mama. 

  • Take a moment to list out all the items that are stressing you out (i.e., work emails, childcare cancellations, baseball practice, swim meets, bedtime routines, your relationships etc.). Getting it out of your head and onto paper can be very useful in and of itself.
  • Once you see it on paper, practice some self compassion. It is a lot! (I don’t even need to know what’s on your paper to know in our current motherhood culture, it’s overwhelming.) Tell yourself, “I can see why I might be feeling overwhelmed right now. This is a lot. Anyone juggling all of these competing priorities would feel this way.” 

4. Take some deep, calming breaths 

Deep breathing is essential to calming down our nervous system. Once you can control your breathing again, it sends a message to the rest of your body that you are safe. Try box breathing: breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, hold for 4. 

5. Use your senses to help ground you back into the present 

Splash cold water on your face or grab an ice cube in your hand and watch it melt for as long as you can. Or you can try doing a 5-4-3-2-1 practice, which involves acknowledging five things you can see around you, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. When we focus on our senses, we distance ourselves from the story in our head behind the anxiety and intrusive thoughts. 

Related: How mindfulness saved my motherhood from anxiety, PPD and OCD

A note from Motherly

There isn’t a magic wand that suddenly makes anxiety and/or an anxiety spiral go away. It will take practice—and you will eventually find the tools that work best for you. 

However, if you notice that your anxiety is impeding your daily functioning and when you try to manage it, it gets worse or it doesn’t feel controllable to you, it is advisable to contact a mental health professional. Mood disorders like generalized anxiety disorder are best managed under the supervision and support of a trained clinician.