How can you reverse the anxiety spiral? Understanding the power of the maelstrom can help you find your way back to calmer waters. This updated post was first published on June 18, 2019.
I was not cut out to be a deep-sea diver. As a child I was unnerved by the mere sight of my bathwater going down the drain. The idea of water being sucked down to unknown darkness was deliciously chilling. So you can imagine my reaction to the scene in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in which the Nautilus submarine is sucked into the “Moskenstraumen” —the dreaded maelstrom off the coast of Norway. I’m lucky YouTube didn’t yet exist. Had I witnessed a video of that famous maelstrom—the most powerful whirlpool in the word—I might never have bathed again.
The force of maelstroms is awe-inspiring. The Corryvreckan off the coast of northern Scotland, the third-largest whirlpool in the world, is caused by flood tides forced into a narrow strait between islands. The sheer volume of water creates 30-foot-high waves. Their roar can be heard nearly ten miles away. Wikipedia tells us that—
…a documentary team from Scottish independent producers Northlight Productions once threw a mannequin into the Corryvreckan (“the Hag”) with a life jacket and depth gauge. The mannequin was swallowed and spat up far down current with a depth gauge reading of 262 metres (860 ft) with evidence of being dragged along the bottom for a great distance.
Reading this description, I quail. And no wonder. Wikipedia may be describing a whirlpool, but these words are also a viscerally accurate description of what it feels like to be sucked under by anxiety.
The punishing effects of anxiety
During the years I struggled with anxiety, there were periods when it ground along in the background. But I also experienced more acute episodes. I’d feel as if I were suspended over a whirling vortex that might pull me down at any moment. The fear of being pulled down was nearly as scary as the direct experience of it.
Paradoxically, my worst anxiety was caused by internally-generated thoughts, as opposed to concrete, present-moment dangers. If my anxiety had been subject to present action and resolution, like realizing I had left a burner lit on the stove then rushing home to turn it off, it would not have been so overwhelming. But even though my anxiety was caused by beliefs and reactions that had no basis in present reality, its effects were all too real.
As you know if you’ve experienced it, to be sucked down into the anxiety whirlpool and dragged along the bottom like the Scottish mannequin leaves you overwhelmed, bruised, and emotionally exhausted. Anxiety is hard on your health. It affects your sleep, your eating, your immune system, and your general resilience. I know this personally. I developed an auto-immune disorder after a period of extreme anxiety and exhaustion. I got sick frequently and struggled to manage basic life tasks.
How can we avoid feeling like victims of anxiety? Certainly, it’s much easier to prevent anxiety than to pull yourself out once you’ve spiraled down. Getting plenty of sleep and exercise and taking responsibility for the quality of your inner conversation are key elements of a sturdy personal infrastructure that can help prevent anxiety. A solid, practical, daily connection with your spiritual intuition is also essential.
But these skills and habits take time to develop. And if you are very anxious, it can be challenging to stay focused on creating a good infrastructure and sticking to it. Moreover, you may have a good infrastructure and still get anxious in certain personal, social, or professional situations. And you may not want or be able to avoid these situations.
How to reverse the anxiety spiral: three lessons from the maelstrom
Sometimes even with concerted efforts at prevention, you end up anxious. Here’s where the maelstrom can offer you more than just a terrifying symbol of the experience of spiraling anxiety. It can show you how to approach anxiety safely so you can heal it:
1—Remember that in this moment, you are fundamentally OK
Hanging on this truth is the most important part of approaching the anxiety maelstrom. It is also the hardest, because from inside the maelstrom, the anxiety is completely real. And co-existing with this reality, there is the reality that on the spiritual level, you can never be anything but OK.
To transform anxiety, you need to hold both of these realities. You hold the deeper knowing that the anxiety is not based on reality, you are aware that something in you is terribly anxious, and you can be the space that holds both.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl recalls talking to dozens of his fellow concentration camp inmates who were suicidal with despair. In that moment he somehow found a way to “be the space that holds both”—both the terrible conditions and the reality of something bigger worth living for.
2—Find a way to get some space around the feelings
To reverse the anxiety spiral, you will need some kind of body-grounding practice. Body grounding may seem counterintuitive when you are anxious. Why would you want to be in your body when it feels so awful?
But the truth is, as long as you are in the maelstrom, it is nearly impossible to be with it in the way that will help it shift. When you ground your awareness in your whole body, you inhabit the “bigger you” that can hold anything and everything that shows up in you.
Use whatever skills you have: EFT tapping, a body-grounding process from Focusing, and Focusing Presence Language may help. Taking a walk may help you create space in yourself. I also highly recommend the breath-and-movement practices I’ve learned from Breath-Body-Mind. I’ve written in more detail about my own experience with Breath-Body-Mind here. If you want to dive in, sign up for the three-day introductory workshop coming up on October 6, 7, and 8, 2021.
3—Go as slowly as your slowest part
You may be terrified of your anxious feelings, and no wonder. However, once you have gotten even a little bit of distance from the anxious feelings, you can turn towards them from this bigger place in yourself and acknowledge them. It’s like being in a helicopter looking down at the maelstrom. You see, hear, and feel it there, but you are not fully in it any more.
Now you can approach the maelstrom of feelings slowly, while attending to something in you that is afraid of the anxiety. Go only as close as this frightened part wants to, then stop. As it begins to trust you will not force it, the frightened part will allow you to approach the maelstrom of anxiety and keep it company, letting it be as it is. Then you can find out why it is so anxious.
Finding your way back to calmer waters
Staying present with strong anxiety can be very challenging to do alone. Do not hesitate to get 1:1 support if you need to. You can much more easily face the terrifying illusion of the maelstrom when you are with someone who is not affected by it.
Having grounded yourself, you can approach the whirlpool from a distance. The moment you start to feel yourself being pulled in, you can hold onto your companion and they can pull you out of the spinning water. Over time, you develop the discernment to know when you need to “swim away” and re-establish your holding capacity. You also develop the skills and strength to do that.
As you develop a relationship with the maelstrom of anxiety, you begin to perceive that it is not the howling life-destroying nightmare you had thought. Rather, it is a terrified part of you that has been alone because you did not know how to be with it. When you get to know it, it will take you deeper, but in a good way, not a terrifying way. Then the waters will calm.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, The_Corryvreckan_Whirlpool_-_geograph-2404815-by-Walter-Baxter.jpg
Another helful article, Emily! Thank you!
You are welcome Nicole. I was excited to update the article with new information about Breath-Body-Mind, as I think it is an incredibly powerful way to regulate ourselves in the face of the intense maelstrom of anxiety.
Thank you so much for this amazingly helpful article and all the links. I’ve been struggling with severe anxiety at work and this is so helpful.
Fiona, I hope the information helps you find more peace at work. Please let me know.
A few days ago I had a slight panic experience. It was if it all happened in slow motion and after the experience I was able to identify each part of it and what had initiated the panic. I wrote it all down to review…but now I can’t find the paper. I was able to distract myself from the tightness in my throat by either putting an ice cube in my mouth or drinking water. It was an exciting development for me as for the past year any panic or anxiety has just consumed me. I am finding that walking outside is wonderful .
HI S, sometimes distraction is an important tool. However, if the anxiety comes up often, developing an inner relationship with something in you that gets anxious will give you longer-lasting relief.
A month later from my first comment and how interesting it is to reread this article and have a more precise understanding of anxiety. I have been working hard at keeping a routine to calm my anxiety. Walking daily, deep breathing, time alone, eating foods that don’t aggravate my digestive system, journaling, gentle self care, and checking in with myself to make sure I don’t overschedule my day. So I am starting to experience some daily calm. This past week however I have experienced what you describe as the bruising of anxiety. I have understood the overwhelm and the emotional exhaustion, but just recently have identified the bruising of anxiety. What an awful feeling.
. In a comment to another one of your articles I wrote that my brain felt like it was going to explode….this is the bruising feeling for me. I have felt it 4 times this past week after getting together in social contexts that I am not comfortable with. How can I , in the future, protect myself from this kind of anxiety without even trying to explain to the people involved how difficult the socializing is?
The short answer would be, don’t participate in social contexts in which you are uncomfortable. But if you wanted to actually address the roots of the discomfort, that’s a deeper project and very personalized–not a question it would be possible for me to answer here.
Just rereading my comments. I realize now that the 4 bruising of anxiety social contexts I spoke of last year all revolved around being with the same toxic emotionally sabotaging people throughout the holiday season. Holiday season is just around the corner again. I have already decided I will not participate in 4 get togethers. I have chosen one day.
Also interesting to note, I have changed my diet completely…..I do not eat animal products anymore and WHAT A DIFFERENCE! My digestive system is very very calm now. I enjoy cooking in the kitchen and love the change of focus to plant based foods instead of meat or chicken.
I recently had a therapy session and the therapist gave me an equation to help reduce my anxiety. (It really would apply to any overwhelming feeling, emotion). So basically A (anxiety) = overestimating the impact of a situation / underestimating my ability to handle it.
In visual format…the equation looks like a fraction. She said I need to decrease the top part of the fraction (the overestimating part) and increase the bottom part of the fraction (the underestimating part). I am very much a visual learner and caught on to this immediately. She worked through a real life example based on something I am going through to help me understand the concept.
Right after our appointment, I took a half hour rest…to rest my HSP brain! Within a few minutes I realized I could apply this equation to my next appointment . I took a piece of paper, wrote out the equation and filled in the blanks. I took the paper with me and read it just before going into my appointment. I realized the only thing I could do was to cross my arms to show body language to the health care professional that I was not happy with the way he has been attempting to solve the dilemna I have experienced for 10 months! It worked …as I had some action to apply to the anxiety I didn’t want to experience during the appointment.
Also, the same therapist mentioned that action brings confidence. I have told her I am HSP. She is aware my brain thinks and processes and thinks and processes. She said I can do all the thinking I want, but if I don’t put something INTO ACTION I will go into overwhelm in my brain.
When I do something about all my thinking she said I will begin to become more confident and this will create a domino effect and the action and confidence experiences will increase. This proved to be accurate for me. Sometimes it can take a while before I decide WHAT action to take, but once I take it, the confidence sets in and I feel stronger.
Congratulations S, it sounds like you are putting many strong self-care practices into action!
Hi Emily, thank you for all your post. I cried when I first read about so sensitive people. I feel empathized and understood. As I’m writing these words, I’ve been experiencing an overwhelming sense of stress. A relative of my husband is in the house and I feel extremely stressed by his presence. Before that there were also other people who came and stayed here. I really feel it’s too much and I’m tired of sitting and talking to them. Until today things have really gone too far, I can’t control the stress and for a minute I wanted to kill myself. I’m better now. My way is to hold a pen and write i’m fine until i feel better, I was in tears in the process.
I don’t think I’m a person who hates being around people, but I feel very uncomfortable when someone comes to stay with me. I want to know is that normal? (None of the people I mentioned above are my friends)
Trang, it sounds like you are becoming overaroused from being around other people so much. That is part of being an HSP: we need time alone to recharge. It’s OK to take breaks when you need to, even if it means pretending you need to go to the bathroom or run an errand. Having someone stay in your house, even someone you like a lot, can be very overstimulating for an HSP…and if it’s a person you feel stressed around already, then that would be even harder.