Interrupting a Spiralling Mind – By Kitty Wheater
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the mind usually reacts to stress and difficulty. One typical reaction is that we ruminate: the mind creates an endless thread, infinite possible scenarios in the imagination, all with the underlying sense that if we can only think of everything and pre-emptively solve it, we’ll be ok.
Sometimes we do eventually wind up at a solution, and it’s that sense of hitting the idea jackpot that reinforces the compelling feel of this mental process. It works! We think. Except, of course, all the times that it doesn’t, and instead keeps us up at 3am, or side-tracks us on an afternoon of remote working…
Unpleasant though it can be, a spiralling mind is a fascinating thing to watch. ‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles,’ Mark Twain is reported to have said, ‘but most of them never happened.’ If you observe closely, there will be an initial trigger: it could be an article or Twitter post that you read, a comment from a friend, a frustrating email. Sometimes, the trigger is itself a creation of the mind. An apparently harmless amble along a familiar mental track takes an unexpected twist, and then, like racehorses out of the gate, we’re off, thoughts bolting for the distant finish line.
When the trigger for a spiralling mind occurs, if you were to slow the moment right down, you would notice two things happen next. First, something physical: a lurch in the stomach, a stony cold feeling in the face, shoulders hunching, chest tightening. These bodily signs are completely normal. They’re an indication of the second thing: an emotion has been triggered. Fear, anger, sadness, and anxiety all show up in the body, and we often feel them physically before we realise that they’re present.
It’s emotional charge that gives the spiralling mind its energy. Emotions are the wind in the mind’s sails. You will have noticed this in good moods, as well as bad: an excited mind will spiral joyously, just as a sad mind will spiral despondently. This makes sense when we consider that emotions are a call to action – a sign for us to attend, and take care. Our mental resources prick up their ears, and get to work.
The trickiness of a spiralling mind is that because of its very energy, it rapidly takes us far away from whatever initially needed attention and care. It will zoom into past, future, and parallel universe, at great speed. Indeed, if you watch the spiralling mind play out, it has the rapidly rotating quality of a hurricane: it hoovers up every relevant fragment of memory, attention, and imagination available. What is ‘relevant’ is governed by the emotional charge. If you are feeling low, memories of previous times you felt low will play across your mind, as if feeling rubbish right now weren’t bad enough. This, incidentally, is why recurring depression feels so hard, because actually it’s not just the weight of this moment on your shoulders; it’s the weight of every other low moment you’ve ever had, bearing down on this one right now.
As well as dredging up the past, and making predictions about the future, the spiralling mind will hone in on everything in the here and now that seems to back up those racing thoughts. Run out of milk? Worry about that, too. Friend not picking up their phone? Fuel to the fire.
When we recognise this process, it’s tempting to get in there and problem-solve. How can I make it stop? Why am I up at 3am yet again? But at this point our problem-solving is running off the storm system itself. When the hurricane of thoughts, emotions, and body sensations gets going, we need something equally powerful to interrupt it – but of a fundamentally different nature.
If the spiralling mind runs on habitual networks of memory and hyper-vigilance, we need deliberate, open, and embodied attention. One of my favourite definitions of mindfulness comes from Ellen Langer, who describes it as ‘…a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context’. The spiralling mind cannot survive an open, flexible, and inquiring awareness, just like wildfire cannot leap across a big enough gap.
This piece was first published on For Times Like These: blogs from the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy. © The University of Edinburgh. No part of this content may be used without prior written permission of the copyright holder.
About Kitty Wheater
Kitty is a mindfulness practitioner based in Edinburgh, UK, with a focus on mindfulness in higher education and other non-clinical settings. She is also an anthropologist and writer, with a DPhil (PhD) in Anthropology from the University of Oxford, where she conducted ethnographic research on mindfulness-based approaches since 2011. Kitty began practicing mindfulness in 2009, trained to teach Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy at the OMC, and taught the OMC’s MBCT and MBCT: Finding Peace programmes to the general public and university students in Oxford for many years.
Kitty will be leading our free online mindfulness session on the 6th May 2020, full details of our online sessions are here: https://www.oxfordmindfulness.org/learn-mindfulness/online-sessions-podcasts/