Ask a Therapist: I’m trapped in a negative spiral.
I’m overwhelmed with all the negativity and suffering and crisis in the world lately, I feel like I’m being crushed by it and I can’t take it. The US election situation scares the crap out of me – I feel like I’m watching Hitler being re-elected, an entire town burned to the ground a few weeks ago and people lost everything they owned, fires are burning around our province, people are getting shot, innocent people are being beheaded, news stories of children being abused and neglected and even chained to a tree in the back yard, one town has their youth all committing suicide one after the other – and that’s just the start of it. I don’t think I’ve ever been so affected by the state of the world. I’m trapped in this negative spiral. I feel anxious, depressed, it’s even keeping me up at night. What do I do?
You certainly are not the only person being impacted by the seemingly endless string of tragedies. It certainly is horrible, around the world and here at home people are suffering. It certainly doesn’t take much to get caught up in that negative spiral.
We can frantically try to understand and find reasoning in things that are unreasonable, and desperately struggle to find logic in things that are illogical.
What can seem even more horrible is how many seem to become immune to the suffering of others. It’s almost as though with news of each tragedy, we develop thicker and thicker skin. Each one impacting us less than the one before… until it breaks through and we feel flooded or until we have something hit really close to home.
We are incredibly privileged living where we do. Yes, there is still suffering all around us – however, compared to some of the conditions around the world – we have clean water, food so plentiful we shamefully waste it, healthcare and a social security system that, albeit flawed, is far better than that of other countries.
But often reminding ourselves of how good we have it often doesn’t help us feel any better; and to be blunt – nor should it. As a caring, empathetic, individual you are going to be effected when you hear of other fellow human beings in pain and in need; or when you are powerless as you watch neighbouring nation stumble towards electing a racist, narcissistic, misogynist into power.
The keyword there is ‘powerless’. To be frank, there is really not much you can do to end the pain and suffering of the world. If you figure out a way to stop forest fires from even starting, prevent earth quakes, and permanently end terrorism… call me. But there are things you can do to help elevate suffering of those around you, and for yourself.
Accept the negative
Just accept it. I know it’s probably the last thing you want to hear – let me explain. We all need to accept that there are things beyond our control. One of those things is that the world can be an unsafe place. Yes there are things we can do to keep ourselves a bit safer, like having a home alarm system for example – but we can’t control the entire planet. Instead of trying to pretend there are no dangers and everything is rainbows and unicorns, or instead of the other end of the spectrum of trying to fix everything that is wrong with the world – you focus only on what you can do. By choosing to install that alarm system you are accepting that the world can be unsafe, and concentrating on what you realistically can do about it.
To live in denial is to place ourselves in jeopardy; but to try and control the uncontrollable is pointless and exhausting.
Living here in Canada, there is very little (if anything) we can do to influence the American election. Yes, we get bombarded with it through the television and social media – it’s like watching a bit of a train wreck from a distance. It certainly does have the ability to stir up some very strong emotions, including fear.. unfortunately, we have to accept that whatever is going to happen is going to happen. We can’t change it, no matter how much time we spend worrying about it.
We need to accept that with some things we are powerless, we have no control. We don’t have to like it, it is not fair; but we do need to accept it so we can focus on the things we can control (like installing a home alarm system).
Find your balance
Do what you can, but don’t over do it. To get yourself out of the negative spiral, focus on the things you can control. Besides taking steps to increase your own personal safety, you can also reach out to support others in their time of need. Donate money and time to credible charities that are helping those in crisis; volunteer to support those in your own community; write letters to your MPs to support or protest funding for various social services and relief agencies.
When people are feeling overwhelmed with negativity and anxiety, they can often end up ‘overdoing’ the output. You need to know when to pull back. Donating more money or time than you have is going to increase your stress level, and in the end burn you out.
Just as you need to set boundaries with others.. you also need to set your own boundaries. Helping others can feel really rewarding, and in an effort to “feel better” people will often overdo it – commit to far more than they are capable, and nearly deplete themselves out of guilt trying to accomplish the impossible. In the end, you suffer and those you are trying to help don’t get the support that you would be capable of providing if you had set some realistic boundaries for yourself.
Author Eleanor Brown has a great quote: “Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”
Unhook from the negative
When everything around us seems to be falling apart, and we are overwhelmed by the negativity – we sometimes go searching for ways to make it go away…. and the way we often do this usually doesn’t work. We can frantically try to understand and find reasoning in things that are unreasonable, and desperately struggle to find logic in things that are illogical. We over-research, over-think, find more negativity, and it just keeps adding up.
Although there can be lots of wonderful, enlightening, humorous, inspirational and positive things on social media – it can also be a stream of negativity concentrate. Consider reducing your use of it for a little while.
Notice when your mind is all caught up in that negative spiral. Remind yourself that much of this is beyond your control: “I don’t have to like it, but it is what it is”; and that right now at this very moment you are experiencing a flood of negative thoughts. Visualize unhooking yourself from them, they’re simply not helpful to you right now.
Taking a step back from that negative spiral, noticing the negative thoughts and unhooking yourself from them – gives positive thoughts and realizations a bit of air-time in your mind. For example the recent For McMurray fires are a huge tragedy for so many – and it is easy to drown in the loss, negativity, and suffering that it has caused. Yet at the same time, there are so many wonderful, heartwarming stories of hope and strength. There are stories of families being reunited with their pets, belongings, and each other; and of complete strangers helping one another. These are the stories and thoughts that deserve some recognition – and you can’t be aware of the positive when all your attention is focused on the negative.
I’m not suggesting that we should completely ignore the suffering and injustices that our fellow human beings are experiencing. At the same time, all of our energy and focus cannot be spent on the unfairness and misery of the world. Staying on the negative spiral roller coaster will do about as much good as simply sticking your head in the sand and playing ignorant… probably less.
Accept. Find your balance. Unhook.
If you’re finding that you’re struggling to do that – you may have some personal and traumatic experiences in your past that are being triggered, pulling up old emotions and fears. Connecting with a qualified Clinical Counsellor can help.
Ask a therapist at Summit Counselling Group. We randomly select one of your questions and answer it on our blog. To submit your anonymous question, just visit our blog page on our website (the message box is on the right hand side). http://summitcounselling.ca/blog/
Joy Sereda is the Clinical Director of the Summit Counselling Group. She is both a Registered Clinical Counsellor and a Registered Social Worker; she primarily uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in her practice. You can read more about Joy, and all of the Summit counsellors on their bio pages.
Summit Counselling Group is made up of eight, professional, and compassionate Registered Clinical Counsellors; working with individuals, couples, adults, children, adolescents, and families at our executive West Broadway office in beautiful Vancouver, B.C.