Catching and Challenging Automatic Anxious Thoughts Can Stop a Downward Spiral
Elysabeth Meehan, LCSW, Samaritan Counseling Center
For a long time, now, people have spoken of the connection between depression and its potential lead-up to thoughts of suicide. Depression is an overwhelming sense of sadness and doom. A person with depression can’t see the sun through the clouds, feels stuck, and loses hope.
In these pandemic times, it’s time to talk about anxiety and its potential to lead to suicidality. People with life-altering anxiety feel a distinct loss of control in their lives and thought patterns. My clients tell me, “I can’t get ahold of anything solid, I can’t regain my footing, and nothing is calm or still.” They often get stuck in a cycle of wondering what else can go wrong, and this sense of doom and gloom can lead to thoughts of suicide.
Picture an old-fashioned mercury thermometer. When anxiety reaches a point where a person doesn’t know what to do or how to bring it down, one of their thoughts for regaining control may be to shatter that thermometer, to end their life. In fact, people who inflict self-harm, like cutting, are in so much emotional pain, these actions serve to distract them, to help them feel something else— anything else. (Self-harm is also closely correlated to suicidality.) I call these drastic life-shattering measures “flipping the table,” and my job is to help my clients find ways to do this in a helpful and healthy way, instead.
There are four kinds of escape and avoidance behaviors for someone suffering from anxiety. The goal is to distract your anxious mind so you can start to reengage with your logical mind. Choose the level that coincides with the level of anxiety you are experiencing to bring down that mercury.
– Level One: Choose a relaxing behavior, like having a snack or taking a walk in nature
– Level Two: Choose a purposeful activity like listening to bilateral music, so named because it helps to recalibrate the two parts of your brain (two sides=bilateral). For most people, it’s easiest to access bilateral music on YouTube. If possible, wear headphones when you listen because the music intentionally “pings” in your left and right ears.
– Level Three: Use two skills at once, like walking while listening to bilateral music or running and listening to loud exercise music.
– Level Four: Set a timer for 20 minutes. Run, or blast music, or plunge your hands into ice water for 20 minutes. Double up on these techniques if you can, as in ice water plus loud music. Some people swear by eating a cold popsicle in a hot shower, as the contrasting temperatures serve to “flip the table.”
A person who can lower the thermometer on their anxiety experience can then learn to sit with their strong emotions, call their feelings what they are (instead of what-if thoughts), and feel all those feelings. Then they ask themselves, “Where is this coming from?” By catching and challenging automatic anxious thoughts, we can stop them from sending us into a downward spiral. The next step is to learn about cognitive behavioral therapy , or CBT, to help restructure thoughts in a healthy way to challenge distorted or unhelpful thinking. Another helpful approach is dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, which teaches people to live in the moment, cope with stress in a healthy way, and regulate emotions. Often, both CBT and DBT help people with anxiety, and we offer both at Samaritan.
Feelings of exacerbated anxiety are new for lots of people amidst COVID-19 because many of their normal distractions for their low-level anxiety have evaporated during lockdown. My colleagues and I see an increase in clients who are seeking help to manage their anxiety for the first time, and we are so happy they are. The tools people learn will make their lives better far into the future. We offer hope and help.