So How Do YOU Self-Soothe During A Panic Spiral?

My therapist and I discovered that I have precisely one methodology for fixing my panic spirals: finding a problem and obsessively hammering solution after solution into it until I solve the problem.

I actually owe my career to this.

Because for me, writing has largely been my way of coping with stress. Am I breaking down because I’m breaking up? Well, here’s this story I’ve been thinking about writing, but the worldbuilding doesn’t hold together – so rather than worrying about the argument I’m having, I will instead retreat into engineering better imaginary worlds.

And I *will not stop*. My wife will tell you – if my book has a problem in the third act, I’ll sometimes spend a solid two weeks pacing the basement, unable to focus on anything else until that problem is fixed.

Which is, in its way, a superpower. Is there a bug in my program at work? I’ll sit in the tub, relentlessly going over the code logic, until I figure out what happened. Did we cross wires and get into an argument? I’ll analyze that conversation fifty times until I can figure out precisely where things went off the rails.

The Solution Spiral has become an axiom of my life. And it works. I mean, there are times when those two weeks spent crushing it in the basement have led to my best novel, and a new book contract. (That would be my time-travelling Wes-Anderson-Meets-The-Fifth-Element soup battle novel “The Sol Majestic,” available for preorder this fall, don’t miss it.)

But when a problem is so big that I can’t fix it, I enter into a panic spiral – and this one tool becomes a detriment.

Because often, there *are* no good solutions.

PROBLEM: This person you love dearly isn’t someone it’s healthy for you to date.
SOLUTION: Either break up with her, or break down.

I don’t like either solution, so I’ll enter into the Solution Spiral for days at a time because there must be a third option. (HINT: Sometimes, there is no third option.)

Or, more commonly:

PROBLEM: I said something stupid on the Internet again that I didn’t mean to say.
SOLUTION: Apologize and clarify as best you can, accept that some people you respect deeply will now dislike you.

Man, do I not like either solution, so I’ll enter into a tizzy of “THIS MUST BE FIXABLE” and spend sleepless nights envisioning the perfect essay that will repair my self-damaged reputation. (HINT: When you fuck up, there are often consequences you cannot undo, and sometimes the best way to become a better person is to remember that pain you caused yourself and others, and use that to forge a vow to do better.)

So basically, for small problems, I can retreat into fantasy worlds and use my obsession to plot better stories. (Yes, I know, that’s pretty much the entire concept behind my ‘Mancer series – escapist obsession turned to magic – did you think it wasn’t autobiographical?) And for mid-sized problems, I can actually fix them with obsession, given time.

But my therapist has pointed out that my one-fix tool leads me to break down when I’m facing problems with no easy solution. And she asked, “What other solutions can you devise?”

I’ve been thinking for a week, and got no good solutions. I’ve tried meditation on numerous occasions, but my thoughts are like a whirlwind when I’m in a panic spiral (though there’s the possibility that I haven’t been trained to meditate properly despite going to two Buddhist classes). Videogames help, but I don’t always have a game that I like enough. Cuddling helps a little, but it’s unfair to ask Gini to hold me all night for minimal gain.

Basically, I don’t have the tools necessary to calm a panic spiral. And so I ask: What have you found that worked?

I’ll make one caveat here: if you don’t have panic spirals, please don’t give your solution for a problem you don’t have. I want first-hand workable solutions from people who do experience this, not theories or “I had a friend”s. (But if you’re generous enough to point your friend here at this essay to ask ’em to weigh in, great!)

But yeah. I’m 48 and it’s time to find new solutions.

What helped you?

8 Comments

  1. Dawn
    Apr 5, 2018

    Assuming the big assumption that your panic spirals and mine have sufficient commonalities:

    1. Guided mindfulness meditation that focuses on bodily awareness. Gets me out of where my brain is, and into my body. As my body slows and calms, my mind tends (not always and not perfectly, but frequently and sufficiently) to follow.

    2. Working out *hard*. Nothing focuses me away from a panic quite as well as pushing my body to new limits. This has the bonus for me of giving me a sense of control as well as a sense of physical competence. Overcoming my insecurities about my body on an almost daily basis gives me a big boost toward imagining that my mental issues can also be overcome.

    3. Focusing on something that is powerfully positive. I think about Jason and enumerate the things I love about him. Or I remember standing on a beach in New Zealand. Or I picture myself meditating with the group at my old Yoga retreat. When I can really put myself into that space — feeling Jason’s touch, smelling the incense, listening to that tide — I find I can refocus my mind away from the panic.

    4. Looking coldly and objectively at the facts of my life, repeating until my brain gets it. But this is a PTSD thing; my panics tend to come because a feather now reminds my nervous system of the hoard of slavering, fanged, rabid ducks that chewed and shat their way all over my past. So rinse, repeat (for me): Jason loves me. We have more than enough money for our needs and several of our wants. The cats are happy and healthy. I’m able to pursue work that gives my life joy and meaning.

  2. Julia
    Apr 5, 2018

    I have several versions of panic spirals but the two most common are one where the world feels like it’s physically flipping on me and taking my brain down with it and the second is when the world becomes quiet, silent, and my brain-whispers sound like a battle-horn. I treat them in the same way I treat stomach acid; I use vinegar.

    For the first one, the dynamic one, I create more physical chaos for myself. I spin really fast, I dance frantically, I let my body try to beat the world at its upside-down game until the force of both just..calms. I *think* it’s what some people experience with exercise but exercise in a traditional form has always put me in a bad mood so I don’t really get it. Once the calm hits I find myself having reached acceptance of a no-win scenario.

    The second one, the fucking scary panic that could easily lead me to logic my way through self-harm, is countered by every day life routines. I fling myself into work-type engagements of business emails, formatting presentations, browsing asset galleries and matching them with future comms, or sorting X items. I wash dishes, I fold laundry, I pick up my daughter’s toys, I organize her bookshelf. I take incremental steps to normalize the situation and find the every day things that ground me. This one is usually reserved for those moments when it’s not just a no-win solution, but one that will actively cause my pain for some time but I have to face it. The daily tasks help me remember that the pain, as of yet, cannot overtake everything else that connects me to my life that by all accounts is pretty darn good.

    Sometimes the same panic spirals re-emerge and I have to use the same tool again, or other times I need to use a sequence of tools for the same dilemma. One of the things about having a smorgasbord of mental health issues and being non-neurotypical is that your tool-case has some Mary Poppins’ bag capacity magic.

  3. Hel
    Apr 5, 2018

    Meds.

  4. Douglas Scheinberg
    Apr 5, 2018

    I dunno if my depressive spirals are anything like your panic spirals, but the one thing that consistently lifts my spirits when I’m feeling worthless is putting on some of my favorite music, usually the FFVI soundtrack.

  5. David M. Crampton
    Apr 5, 2018

    When I’m in a panic spiral, I change the environment around me. Driving somewhere works, but walking works better. If I have reading or writing to do, I take it with me, and put myself in that world, in the changed environment (diner, coffee shop, etc). A couple of hours of that will usually unravel the spiral.

  6. chiffon
    Apr 6, 2018

    I follow a practice similar to Dawn’s.

    Once I notice I’m panicking, I turn my attention to my body, and in the case of negative emotions, I focus specifically on the sensations I am feeling and watch them intently, or name them, or tell them I accept them. I often put my hand on my heart and say, for example, I accept, I accept, I accept.

    When watching the feelings, I focus on, say, the feeling of tightness in my chest, and name it, tightness, and then watch as it changes, because the thing about emotions and sensations is that they always change. So the tightness will shift into a slightly different feeling and I can watch it transform, reminding me that this too will pass.

    I also find naming the emotion or sensation to be helpful, because I think of emotions as signals from my body that I need something, and by acknowledging them, I tell my body that I hear it, and that the signaling can stop now.

    Acceptance works in a similar fashion. I remind myself that suffering is wishing that the world were different, and that I need to accept that what I am feeling now is what I am feeling now, and the only way out is through. So I focus on what I am feeling (all the pain, all the panic) and I feel it as hard as I can, and repeat yes, I accept, I accept, I accept.

    These techniques usually work in short bursts. Often, the feelings (panic, etc.) come back, and then I go through it again. But this is good, because it’s training in mindfulness, and I get better of letting go of these thoughts.

    These are all meditation techniques that I picked up through meditation for stress-management and then practising like my hair was on fire. So I would just say, keep practising your meditation! And it’s all practice.

  7. Kim
    Apr 8, 2018

    Honestly, being on an antidepressant helps a lot with not having the problem to begin with. But when I *was* panicking more, my #1 solution was taking a walk. Once I started walking, I could faster, until my body was tired enough that my thoughts stopped hammering away at me.

    Lots of reasons for walking being good — walking quickly gives bodies a chance to do that whole “fight or flight” thing and discharge some of the panic. It also does that whole bilateral stimulation thing that EMDR therapists are forever doing to calm down trauma.

    And then, once I got the walking underway, I could calm down enough to call a friend if I needed to cry, or walk in the direction of a cup of tea out.

    It sounds like you aren’t really in touch with your body, from what you’ve written about pain tolerance and about how having a good posture isn’t a thing you do. But your body is still in touch with *you*, and this is a good first step until you can figure out what else to do 🙂 (The second step is probably a lot of water — calms down the breathing-quickly thing, because you can’t hyperventilate while drinking water).

    Good luck, friend.

  8. Jack V
    Apr 26, 2018

    My brain spirals are much less intense than yours, but based on what you said, it sounds like the strategy which suits you is something like:

    1. Throw yourself into some OTHER problem (writing, coding, etc) until you become distracted and the terror of the main problem is temporarily slightly less intense
    2. Think about or talk over the main problem just a little, to get an idea of what solution you expect you’ll have to settle for even if you’re not really able to accept it yet.
    3. Back off to step 1 again
    4. Wait and see if hindbrain slowly starts to accept unwelcome solution
    5. Repeat

    I’ve no idea if that’s healthy, but I realised that when I was inadvertently doing that was the times I made progress. I don’t know if these apply to you, but FWIW, related problems I needed to figure out were: I needed to set some calendar reminder to return to main problem at some future point (or my brain wouldn’t let me forget it); I needed to use other coping mechanisms to stop the rest of my life falling apart while I was not-thinking-about-this; I needed to be realistic and accept tiny progress as good.

    What I wish I’d known was being able to turn to someone I trust and say, “help, my brain is terrible at this, just tell me the answer and I’ll do that” on the grounds that usually the right answer was obvious to someone else, but it was hard to have that negotiation when I was in “don’t think about it” mode.

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