5 Ways to Stop A Downward Spiral

Written by Michael A. Gordon

My Italian-Canadian stepfather often ambushes me with slice-o-life zingers that rattle in my brain for years to come. One of my favorites is, “It’s not how you go down. It’s how you get up.”

You don’t have to be a boxer to make the metaphor your own. Unfortunately, many of us have deeper wounds and insecurities--mostly based on past regrets or mistakes—embedded in our subconscious minds and bodies. This deeply held "unfinished business" of our past is what surfaces in times of stress.

What makes this problematic is that we are both blessed and cursed as homosapiens with the an advanced neocortex or ‘rational’ forebrain. This is a good thing because we have the capacity for multiplex reasoning and self-reflection. It can be a problem, however, when our highly sensitive, meaning-seeking psyche goes even slightly off-kilter and morphs into a self-loathing-rumination machine!

Here are five steps to intervene in that downward spiral, no matter what has taken place:

1. Recognize the shame, acknowledge it, and transform it. 

When things go badly, it triggers negative associations with past experiences and we identify with the current incident and resulting bad thoughts about ourselves with the same, ever-present shameful conclusions, such as “I suck” or “I am doomed to suffer.”

This is most likely rooted in very primal unprocessed wounds from our early life, when confusing or overwhelming things left us having to adapt and survive in limited ways.

The remedy in the present is to recognize the shame-trigger, and remind ourselves that shame is a feeling, not a verdict of reality. Extend the same compassion and reassurance you would to a close friend or, better yet, a young person overcome with shame and guilt.

Allow the feelings space. They will rise and fall in their own way. Simply labeling and observing allows you to feel more in control.

2. Reclaim your power. 

Take responsibility and appropriate action—then let go…

Once you have made space for the legitimate ways in which the situation has hurt you, to compassionately recognize that even if you caused harm to others that you have thus suffered yourself, then you can more dispassionately assess the situation and what must be done to regain your balance.

A mind unsettled is like liquid inside a shaken bottle. In time, the wave motion will settle into stillness, and so it goes with our mind.

No matter how badly we have acted or suffered, there is always a way. One of my favorite Buddhist teachings goes something like this: ‘the times we find ourselves in the ditch are sacred, because it is precisely when we find ourselves off the path that we recognize where the rightful path is and which direction to go to get back on!’

3. Find humility; ask for help.

Again, what is most injurious about being in a bind is the shame. If we can take a moment to widen our gaze in the moment and realize the equanimity of suffering, that is that all sentient beings experience hurt, loss, confusion, grief—then we can find our place in the universal experience and be vulnerable to ask and receive help.

One of the most profound gifts I once received from a wise friend in a moment of emotional turmoil was having her thank me for sharing my hurt—because in doing so I was making it possible for others to feel their own pain and let it go!

By being vulnerable, you attract the same openhearted others who are more than glad to help you help yourself; they can see themselves in you in that moment. This is empathy. This is community, or at least humanity’s innate compassion naturally unfolding in the moment.

4. See the positive, take the learning. 

As the saying goes, “cooler heads prevail.” When we are able to gently and courageously stick by ourselves and even allow another to do so in our moment of suffering, then the evident solution arises through naturally arising wisdom and acceptance.

Things just make sense once the panic abates, even if it is an undesirable outcome (which is just ego resistance). Acceptance of the emergent truth is liberating, as painful as it may be.

5. Pay it forward. 

Transform your guilt (the urge to self-punish for one’s transgressions) into something positive and life affirming. Allow the simple compassion of accepting the situation for what it is guide your heart and conscience to help another or do good anonymously.

Remember, karma means choice, not fate, as it is widely misinterpreted. Karma is mindful action, the principle of awareness and right conduct/choice that transforms our former cycle of suffering into openness and insight.

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