Anxiety Spiral Simplified: The 15 Best Ways to Stop Spiraling

Research into both the physiological and psychological causes of anxiety is flourishing, and scientists understand more about spiralling anxiety today than ever before. With a greater understanding of exactly what the body and mind is experiencing, it’s possible to take a deep breath, step back and recalibrate in healthier, more adaptive ways.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
anxiety spiral
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

Sudden anxiety can overwhelm your body and mind in stressful situations. Discover how to stop a negative emotional spiral and prevent it in the future by learning mindfulness and self-care.

What is an anxiety spiral?

Have you experienced the frightening effects of spiraling anxiety? While it’s a little different for everyone, most people agree that it makes them feel out of control, overwhelmed, and panicky.

Whether it’s panic disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, phobias or PTSD, dealing with anxiety can feel like a lonely, confusing battle against an elusive enemy.

Anxiety is multi-faceted: it involves your body, mind, and even your social behaviors in response to negative emotions. Life’s little daily stressors pile onto you every day and drain your mental energy. If you don’t have a system in place to unwind and decompress at the end of your day, all of your stress will build up, leaving you in a constant state of anxiety and emotional fatigue.

Eventually, a trigger event will cause you to catastrophize and worry about the worst-case scenario. This makes your brain release stress hormones that cause physical symptoms, which induce even more panic. This negative feedback loop leads to “spiraling out of control,” down a rabbit hole of catastrophic thinking and panic responses.

Taking care of your mental health before you experience spiraling anxiety can help you calm yourself down and even avoid it entirely. In this post, you’ll learn what causes an anxiety response, how to recognize it, and how to stop a downward spiral in its tracks.

Key takeaways

  • Anxiety spirals make you feel out of control by feeding off of negative thoughts and stress hormones. This is often due to a triggering event. The combination of mental and physical symptoms makes you feel like you’re “spiraling down” into a panic attack.
  • The build-up of daily stress causes a constant state of anxiety, making you more prone to anxiety spirals and less able to cope.
  • The solution is to cultivate daily mindfulness and lifestyle habits that will help you manage stress. Also, you can learn techniques to use in the moment to stop a negative thought spiral.

Unsure where to begin? Insight Timer’s anxiety topic page is full of guided meditations, courses, and articles to help you get started. 

The brain and body science behind mental spirals 

Anxiety is a normal response that evolved to keep early humans out of danger. Threatening situations trigger your brain’s fight-or-flight response to keep you safe. This was helpful to our prehistoric ancestors who lived with the looming threat of a lion attack or rival clan raid at any moment.

Modern society has (thankfully) evolved beyond these basic threats, but our brains have held on to the fight-or-flight response. This often means that situations that are not literally life-or-death are still perceived by your brain this way. The amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for emotion control) releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol in response to a threat. These hormones cause a physical stress response that usually includes:

  • sweaty palms
  • rapid pulse 
  • shallow, quick breathing
  • nausea or upset stomach

If you are already in a chronic state of stress due to mental fatigue, you might become hyper-aware of these physical symptoms and worry about them getting worse. 

Cue the anxiety spiral.

Hyper-arousal about your symptoms leads to catastrophic thinking (panicking), releasing even more stress hormones, and compounding your physical response. Soon you’re left in an anxious puddle, feeling out of control and like you’re spiraling mentally without any help.

Anyone can be vulnerable to this panic response if they are living in a state of chronic stress and hyper-arousal. But certain factors — like  genetics, sex, learned behavior, and past experiences — make some people more anxiety-prone than others.

Therapists, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have all suggested various theoretical models to understand the process of anxiety as well as the parts of the body that are involved as anxiety spirals out of control. “Biopsychosocial” models attempt to explain the problem holistically and show how the anxiety story plays out simultaneously across our bodies, minds and even rippling out into our social behavior. These models are constantly being refined, but they have much in common. One thing that seems to characterize anxiety across the board is the presence of reinforcing feedback loops that escalate anxiety rather than diffuse it.

What triggers spiraling anxiety?

Intrusive thoughts, paired with major life stressors, are usually to blame for triggering a negative thought spiral. Some common trigger events include:

  • Stressful major life events, good or bad (job loss, new baby, moving to a new area, trouble in school, death of a loved one)
  • Personal relationship issues
  • Comparing yourself to others (common with social media)
  • Overwhelmed with responsibilities, both at work and home
  • Health concerns for yourself or a loved one
  • Financial stress
  • Social situations that cause anxiety

These events are more likely to start an emotional spiral if you are drained from dealing with stresses that accumulate each day. This leads to negative thought patterns, constant anxiety, and worse overall mental health, leaving you unable to solve problems and cope healthily.

Do you struggle with breaking free from negative thinking? This meditation, by Richard Scott, will guide you to release negative thoughts and emotions. And if you have trouble identifying what triggers your negative emotions, check out this post about the H.A.L.T. technique.

What are the symptoms of general anxiety?

While everyone experiences anxiety a little differently, some common signs and symptoms include:

  • Sweaty palms
  • Hot flashes
  • Racing pulse
  • Inability to take deep breaths
  • Stomach upset
  • Headaches
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability
  • Feeling shaky
  • Tense muscles

If you notice some of these symptoms and feel yourself becoming panicky about them, it could be the start of an anxiety spiral.

How to tell if you’re in an anxiety spiral

Anxiety spirals are characterized by physical and mental symptoms feeding into each other. A triggering event causes racing negative thoughts. Stress hormones are released, leading to signs like:

  • sweaty palms
  • increased heart rate
  • nausea
  • shallow breathing
  • lightheadedness

You notice these symptoms and feel overwhelmed, out of control, and like you can’t calm yourself down. Soon you’re panicking, which leads to more intrusive thoughts, and the whole cycle repeats itself.

If you are spiraling out of control, this 15-minute guided meditation for panic and anxiety relief, by Andrea Wachter, can help you quiet your mind and calm your nervous system.

How to stop spiraling out of control

Below are listed 15 of the best ways to stop anxiety spirals. First, we have 7 ways to stop spiraling immediately, then 8 ways to prevent it in the future.

Check out these 7 tips to get out of an emotional spiral right now.

1. Prioritize mindfulness 

When you are panicking, it is essential to get out of your head and return your focus to the present moment. Mindfulness exercises are perfect for this. You can try:

For more information on the effectiveness of grounding in the present moment, check out this article on the Insight Timer blog.

These evidence-based guided meditations can help to reset your spiraling mind when anxiety arises:

  1. Courage To Face Your Fears Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
  2. Working With Anxiety Judson Brewer
  3. Anxiety Relief Meditation Dr Jeremy Alford
  4. Decrease Anxiety & Increase Peace Andrea Wachter
  5. Befriending Anxiety Willa Blythe Miller
  6. Breaking Negative Thought Loops Jen Knox
  7. For When You’re Overwhelmed By Anxiety Dr. Sarah Cavrak

2. Move more and with joy 

Purposeful movement of any kind is a powerful way to combat stress and negative thought patterns. Move however you like, it doesn’t have to be complicated. 

Some ideas include:

Insight Timer offers hundreds of free live online yoga classes and on-demand meditations for you to try.

3. Chill out — literally 

Studies show the benefit of cold showers on mental and physical health. But, you don’t have to hop in the shower to replicate the effects. Place an icepack on the back of your neck, hold an ice cube, go outside if it’s cold, or dip your feet into a cool bath. A sudden chill is a great way to recenter yourself and come back into your body.

4. Use healthy, short-term distraction

Distraction can be a useful tool as long as it’s intentional and short. Don’t let it become a way to zone out or numb your emotions. Some things you can try:

  • play a video game
  • engage in your favorite hobby
  • watch a movie
  • listen to music
  • play with a pet

5. Reach out to your support system

Humans are social creatures. We were not created to go through life’s troubles without help.

Building up a support system takes time, so work on this regularly and ahead of time. Choose people you trust and who have shown you they have your back — by returning messages and initiating contact without secondary motives. Good friends or your therapist are great to have in your support team. Explain to them that you might need their help on short notice, then don’t be afraid to reach out!

6. Challenge negative thoughts 

Ask yourself: are these thoughts real, or are they just me catastrophizing? Should I realistically be worried about this?

Remember that an anxiety spiral starts with end-of-the-world thinking that leads to physical panic. When you feel a mental spiral starting, take a moment to question how bad the situation actually is.

Having trouble deciding what is worth worrying about? This 10-minute talk on how to stop catastrophizing, by Elisha Goldstein, can help.

7. Don’t neglect self-compassion

Recognize that you likely are handling a lot. Most of us have stressors in several areas of our lives that affect us daily. 

You’re not weak or deficient for struggling with stress and anxiety — you are simply human. 

It can be difficult to grow self-compassion, but it is key to avoiding emotional spirals brought on by perfectionism and overwhelm.

How to prevent future emotional spirals

It’s so important to protect your mental health BEFORE an anxiety spiral has a chance to start. Prevention is key to cognitive function, coping skills, and problem-solving. 

Below are 8 ways to prevent spiraling in the future and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

8. Recognize your early warning signs of spiraling

Anxiety spiral isn’t an official medical term, so it can look different for everyone. Learn to recognize when you are starting to feel out of control. 

Common symptoms are:

  • racing heartbeat
  • panicked thoughts
  • rapid breathing
  • butterflies in your stomach
  • lightheadedness  

When you notice your warning signs, take steps to get yourself out of the spiral early. Maybe you try grounding, deep breathing, or purposeful movement. Do whatever works best for you.

9. Practice mindfulness and meditation 

It’s important to make your practice a daily habit so you can keep stressors from building up. 

New research shows that:

“. . .daily interventions are of practical importance for maintaining emotional health as a low-cost, high-yield way to prevent psychological problems.” 

Furthermore, there is evidence that meditation practices are comparable to prescription medication for treating anxiety. 

Also, using methods like grounding, visualizations, and  breathing exercises help you return to the present moment when you feel yourself spiraling. 

Insight Timer offers hundreds of free courses, meditations, talks, and blog posts to choose from. If you are unsure where to begin, these resources are a great place to start:

10. Nurture your support system

Remember, humans are not meant to navigate the world alone. We evolved to thrive in close-knit communities. Building a support system is an essential part of protecting your mental health. Here are some ideas for how to do this:

  • Find specific people who you trust to help you when you begin spiraling. 
  • Choose a few, so there is always someone who can help you.
  • Include your therapist if you have one.
  • Let your people know that you may reach out to them on short notice so they aren’t surprised.

11. Explore CBT therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps with recognizing intrusive thoughts and reframing negative thought patterns. It is practiced by licensed mental health therapists and can be a helpful short or long-term solution to help you manage stress and anxiety.

Explore our free collection of MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) meditations. However, remember that this is not a substitution for therapy with a licensed professional.

12. Consider medication

Don’t be afraid to use medication if you’re trying your best but still not able to cope. It’s important to reach out to your doctor and get the help you need. Some people are genetically wired to be more anxious and need extra support. 

Studies have repeatedly shown that if you use medication, it works best combined with therapy and positive lifestyle changes like mindfulness and stress reduction

13. Manage stress in your life

Using stress reduction every day is key to protecting your mental health and wellness. Recent research shows that:

“In reality, it is the neglected daily trifles that shape our long-term psychological states. For example, daily chores better predict stress-related health issues than major life events. . .The accumulation of negative reactions to minor stresses will likely cause health problems and psychological disorders.”

So, what can you do to combat everyday stress in your life? Here are some ideas:

  • Create easy daily routines to follow. They lessen anxiety by giving you control over what’s coming next. This blog post can teach you 7 daily habits to ease an anxious mind and be happier.
  • Consider a morning routine and a sleep routine. Incorporate relaxation and mindfulness techniques into both. 
  • Evaluate where the stress is coming from in your life. If you can, take steps to reduce or remove it. This isn’t always easy, but it might be necessary to move forward.

14. Get your thoughts out

One of the best ways to reframe persistent negative thinking is by focusing on the good things in your life. You can try naming 3 things every day or journaling for a few minutes.

You can write about anything that’s on your mind. Just focus on getting your worries out of your head and onto paper. This will also help you to see them more objectively.

15. Control your environment to avoid negative triggers 

Create a relaxing home environment to unwind from the stressors of the day. This allows your mental energy to recharge so you can tackle the stress of tomorrow without it all building up.


Also, avoid stressful triggers like the news or social media.

Try this relaxation meditation by Chibs Okereke to soothe your nervous system after a long day.

What are the long-term effects of anxiety spirals?

Repeated emotional spirals cause a chronic state of stress. This makes you more likely to spiral out of control when the next life stressor hits because you don’t have the mental energy to cope healthily. 

Research shows that the buildup of little daily stressors is more likely to cause chronic anxiety and depression than a single major life stressor event. This is because daily perceived negative emotions lead to:

  • hyper-alertness
  • fixed thinking
  • rumination 

Long-term this causes anxiety and depression, which feed into each other and worsen over time.

“Without effective regulation of the stress triggered by these daily pressures, long-term maintenance and accumulation of perceived stress and induced negative emotions can synergistically lead to serious mood disorders.”

Chronic anxiety spirals lead you to change your behavior. You might avoid certain situations, overreact, or constantly worry when it’s not necessary.

Constant anxiety also leads to physical problems like muscle tension, GI upset, headaches, and a weakened immune system.

Remember to practice daily habits to combat little stressors and negative thoughts in your life. This will build up your resilience and help to reshape maladaptive thinking. Meditation, mindfulness, grounding, and other preventative measures are key to stopping anxiety spirals.

Frequently asked questions about anxiety spirals

What are spiraling negative thoughts?

Also known as catastrophic thinking, these are the thoughts that drag you down into an anxiety spiral. They are usually worst-case scenarios and lead to stressful physical symptoms, setting off the feedback loop.

What is the 333 rule for anxiety?

The 333 rule is a grounding trick to calm your mind and return to the present moment. To do it, find 3 things you can see, 3 things you can hear, and move 3 different body parts. It is similar to the 54321 grounding technique.

How do I get myself out of an anxiety spiral?

Use mindfulness and meditation techniques to stop spiraling. You can also try purposeful movement, short-term distraction, cold therapy, reaching out to a friend, challenging negative thoughts, and practicing self-compassion.

What causes anxiety?

Oliver Robinson of University College London believes that in those with anxiety disorders, it’s as if this anxiety circuit is permanently switched on. Genetic predisposition (scientists have now identified nine sections of the human genome that seem to correlate with neuroticism), learned behavior, gender and past experience all influence whether a person is at risk for developing anxiety. Anxiety sufferers have also been shown to have abnormal levels of the neurotransmitter GABA. Thankfully, there are now effective ways to treat and manage anxiety.

How do I find the right mental health professional?

The important thing is to just get started with therapy. There are virtual and in-person options for every budget available. Even if you don’t click with your first therapist, most platforms make it easy to switch until you find the right person for you. Just don’t quit! Have patience and keep searching for your ideal therapist until you find a match.

How to help someone with anxiety?

There are many ways to help someone struggling with anxiety, stress, or depression. If they are experiencing a panic attack, help them to focus on their surroundings and return to the present moment with grounding techniques. Once they feel better, help them learn healthy coping skills.


Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be considered as medical advice. If you have concerns about anxiety or any other conditions mentioned in this article, please seek a medical professional for help.


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