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I see “anxiety avalanches” all the time in my practice. People have a negative thought and then start packing on other related worries and fears. Soon, that negative thought gains size and momentum, like an enormous snowball growing rapidly as it reels down a hill. If unmanaged, this thought process can lead to a serious emotional avalanche where the person becomes increasingly overwhelmed, loses their psychological groundedness, and is in a state of significant distress.
For example, recently a client reported she went for a battery of STD tests after having unprotected sex. Understandably, the waiting period for results is extremely anxiety provoking and she feared a positive result. As she sat on my couch, her mind raced towards how enraged she would be with her boyfriend for infecting her, her grief at the loss of their relationship because she would need to break up with him, her sadness about possibly having a disease for the rest of her life, and her fear that she would never find somebody who would marry her and have a family if she were “damaged goods”. As she sobbed uncontrollably about all these possible outcomes, I gently brought her back to the present by reminding her that none of these events had actually happened yet… And thankfully, they never did. Her results were negative (and she has a newfound appreciation of the need to practice safe sex!)
We could all save ourselves a tremendous amount of time and energy if we stopped psychological snow slides. After almost twenty years of counseling experience, I guide my clients through the following tips and recommend them to you:
1) Be aware of your self-talk. Pay attention to the voice within your head and notice when you are experiencing a negative thought. Observe that negative thought or fear and make note of it’s presence. Beware not to add additional worries or fears onto this thought. If your mind begins to do that, raise a mental red flag that this behavior can exacerbate stress, anxiety or depression. Silence your inner critic and coach yourself through the moment as if you were your very best friend or most loving parent.
2) Stay in the present. Our minds often beat us up by second guessing the past or worrying about the future when in actuality, usually everything is pretty much okay in the present. Work at accepting the past by having a mantra such as, “I am grateful for all of the events of the past for bringing me the wisdom I have today.” Remind yourself it is wasteful to have feelings about future events that may or may not ever come to fruition.
3) Practice relaxation techniques. Do a guided breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or meditation exercise on your computer or smartphone. Even a couple minutes of this can stop the downward spiral and leave you grounded once again.
4) Control what you can and let go of the rest. Write down the factors you can control and those that you can not. Empower yourself to take action on the items that you can control and let go of the ones you can’t control by handing them over to your higher power (God, the universe, life, etc.) Visualize breathing these things out and repeat a soothing mantra such as “Everything happens for a reason and all is as it should be.”
5) Turn your attention somewhere else. Be of service to somebody else to get out of your own head and gain perspective. Distract yourself and refill your cup with some self care. Go for a brisk walk, jam to your favorite song and clear the cobwebs from your head.
6) Ask for support. Everything feels more manageable when you have somebody in your corner. Reach out to a friend, colleague, or therapist for some anchoring, groundedness or at the very least, a good laugh to bring you back to the here and now.