Interrupting a Spiralling Mind

Drop-in posts written by Dr Kitty Wheater

31st March


Dear all,

Sun breaking through the clouds at St Ives Harbour. In the foreground there is a person standing on a sandy beach, their is a harbour wall in the distance with the sea beyond that. Overhead their are light blue and grey clouds and sunlight coming through between them.
Sun breaking through the clouds, St Ives Harbour, by Harriet Harris

A warm welcome back to the virtual drop-in, and I hope this finds you and yours keeping safe and well.


This week, we take a closer look at the spiralling mind, and use the the 3-Step Breathing Space to work with it.


The Spiralling Mind

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.


The Three-Step Breathing Space

Zindel Segal, one of the creators of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for recurring depression, describes how he, Mark Williams and John Teasdale created a short practice intended to make just this gap. The three-step breathing space is ‘about moving attention in specific ways to help us free ourselves or to get unstuck,’ he writes, and you can try this lovely guided track for it from Mark Williams.

Sometimes called a three-‘minute’ breathing space, the practice can be done in just a few minutes, or extended to longer if you wish. It has three key parts:

1) Acknowledging what’s here in your experience right now: your mood, thoughts, emotions, body sensations. There’s no need to change these, just notice what’s here, with some friendliness.

2) Gathering the attention to the sensations of the breathing somewhere that feels steady, like the abdomen. Notice this in-breath, and this out-breath, just as they are, breathing themselves.

3) Expanding the awareness, to include the whole body sitting, standing, or lying down, just as it is, being itself.

Practice this a few times with the track, and then try doing it by yourself: the beauty of the breathing space is that it’s portable. To remember its steps, you can use the acronym AGE: Acknowledge, Gather, Expand. In our mindfulness courses, we encourage people to practice it two or three times a day in ordinary moments. This helps train the attention to follow its hourglass shape – broad awareness, narrow, broad – so that in those moments when the spiralling mind’s tug is strongest, we have this internal resource at our fingertips.

The breathing space is a short practice, invisible to the onlooker, and can be easy to underestimate. Yet course participants and trainee teachers tell me that there have been times when the breathing space has saved their lives. It does not fix our problems, or make situations go away; at the end of it, there may still be strong thoughts and feelings around. Things still need our attention, and action.

But what the practice does is create space. Space, far from being a vacuum, is potent. Sometimes, it is enough at the end of a breathing space to notice, 'wow, I really am upset right now,' and to attend to that with care. At their simplest, the gap around the wildfire and the pause in the storm offer a chance for this moment to be different than it would have been otherwise. Short, and deceptively quiet, there are days when the breathing space’s slivers of difference make all the difference.