The Scientific Explanation Of "Worry Spirals"

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Have you ever felt like your worries spiral out of control with a troubling degree of frequency? As Cari Romm highlights at Science of Us, you are far from alone if you tend to get trapped in circles of anxiety. In fact, research published in the December 2016 issue of Biological Psychology explains this phenomenon, known as "worry spiraling," delving into what elements send worrying from normal to problematic and why it can feel impossible to slow down once you've started the process.

It's good to point out that worrying is often outside of most people's control, and that having worries doesn't make someone "weak"; what's more, it isn't up to anybody else to decide what is or isn't "worth" worrying about for others. For example, if a friend is struggling with money, it's not anyone else's place to say that they "shouldn't worry" about their budget. This mindset is particularly true for marginalized groups who might experience anxieties and obstacles that other people struggle to relate to.

Even still, this study focuses in on the reality that even if our worries do serve a purpose, after a point, they cease to do anything except take up space in our brains. Ever wonder why you stay up late at night worrying that you forgot to send an email, or trying to remember if you locked your front door? These worries likely stem from a concern that bad or harmful things will happen if you messed up. If you're a "problem worrier," though, as Christian Jarrett put it in the British Psychological Society's Research Digest, you "tend to experience more negative moods, which are known to encourage a more analytical thinking style. In turn, this lays the ground for an overly zealous, perfectionist worry style that is in a sense impossible [to] satisfy and leads to more distress and anxiety."

And that right there is the cause: Some people literally overthink their worries too much, which can trigger a self-perpetuating spiral of anxiety.

So, how do we get out of this horrendous worry cycle? This advice might feel painfully obvious, but it's what the science suggests: Make a genuine, concentrated effort to move on from a thought when it no longer is of use to you. If you're worried that someone has been abducted, for example, but your only actual evidence is that they haven't returned your text, there is nothing your worries can do to actually change the scenario in your head.

The solution? Make a sincere effort to turn your phone over, know that your friend will get back to you whenever they do, and focus on or do something else in the meantime. It's super tough when you're convinced your BFF has been abducted, but stepping away from your phone and turning your attention to something else — a hobby, a TV show, your dog — will help break the worry spiral. Refreshing your text messages, sadly, won't.

Basically, when your worries stop giving you next steps you can take beyond continuing to worry, it's time to compartmentalize from them and move on to another task or thought.

Jarrett explained the logic like this: “Thinking about the idea of stopping worrying when you’ve had enough of it, rather than when the worrying is somehow ‘finished’ or ‘complete,’ could be beneficial." Giving yourself an end time to stop worrying doesn't necessarily solve whatever you are worried about, but it stops the worries from paralyzing you and permeating through your entire day.

If you find yourself overwhelmed by your worry spirals, or feel like your anxiety is becoming unmanageable, definitely never hesitate to reach out to a friend, family member, or mental health professional for some support and guidance.