© Gloria Valoris, 2013

CAVEAT: I am not a therapist and these ideas are not intended for people with serious mental health diagnoses, who should only undertake this or any program of self-help under appropriate mental health therapeutic supervision.

Many people have dark days when ugly thoughts and feelings start spinning and take over their brains and being. The mind whirls with repetitive, out-of-control, upset, negative thoughts. One primary characteristic of spinning thoughts is that they are non-productive, not leading to resolution or understanding. Spinning, or ruminating as it is often called, is brooding rather than thinking, emotional churning rather than a serious effort to create change. Spinning does not challenge existing assumptions or conclusions. Spinning asks the unanswerable ‘why’ rather than the practical ‘how’. Spinning paralyzes rather than leads to considered action that could create beneficial results.

This pattern of upset, negative, repetitive thoughts can result from many situations – an external stimulus, a memory, anxiety over the future, or just a behavioral pattern that once established, is difficult to break (we have emotional habits as well as physical ones). Many negative emotions and thoughts can trigger spinning, and some people are susceptible to multiple triggers. Common triggers are anger, fear, feeling overwhelmed, guilt, shame, and depression, but nearly any negative state can cause spinning. While in a spinning state, hoarders are more likely to go on acquiring binges and to resist clearing things out. Compulsive overeaters are more likely to binge on food while spinning, and people susceptible to other addictions more likely to be deeply engaged in them while spinning.

Spinning may seem inevitable, that once it starts, you quickly become ‘locked in’, unable to change your emotional trajectory, or to do so only with great difficulty. But consider – if you have an already-scheduled engagement (most people do not schedule events while they are upset), especially one that you enjoy, different outcomes could result:

Indeed, it is possible to stayed locked in spinning for days, weeks, even years. Some people never emerge, much to the detriment of their quality of life and probably that of everyone around them. However, no one is condemned to living in a state of spinning no matter what their life or emotional history has been. As long as we are alive and functional, change is possible and worthwhile.

Berating yourself, putting yourself down, using harsh, judgmental language with regard to yourself is a very harmful form of spinning. Self-castigation drains away energy that could be better used for change. Believing harmful thoughts about yourself undermines the confidence needed to believe that you are capable of change or even deserve the better life that change can bring. This kind of thinking is more harmful than negative thoughts about another person because you could always drop someone else from your life but you are stuck with yourself.

Harsh judgments about yourself are as harmful, unrealistic, false and inaccurate as such thoughts would be about another person. Such judgments lead away from truth, action, self-improvement, and hope. Negative judgments, whether about yourself or another person, are never beneficial, and commonly lead to spinning and a host of negative emotions and outcomes. (Even for changes you do need to make, judgments are not helpful – only action plans are.)

Perhaps more challenging to see is that there is an opportunity to prevent spinning before it takes over your being. There always is a moment before spinning starts where you can see an upset brewing, and you have a micro-second of choice in which you can:


Catching this micro-second of opportunity requires concerted effort:

Recognizing Triggers
Introspection, perhaps best encouraged by writing, is one of the most powerful tools for becoming aware of the triggers that lead to spinning. Meditation, art, therapy, talking with others, 12-step groups, and communing with nature are also invaluable ways to gain insight. Re-constructing events, internal (mental or emotional) or external that occurred immediately prior to starting to spin may help to spot those micro-second moments when you can blast away whatever negativity would lead to a spin.

There are two key factors for successful introspection:

If you do not take responsibility for your thoughts and feelings, you cannot control them. As long as you believe you are a victim, whether of circumstances, other people, or some internal or external force you cannot control, you are essentially a puppet with various factors pulling your strings. When you assert your right to pull your own strings and not be enslaved by emotions or anyone else’s whims, then you stand a chance of overcoming spinning.

Identifying Warning Signs
Some people have physical indicators that they are becoming upset and about to start spinning: they may feel faint, nauseous, dizzy, hear ringing in their ears, have palpitations or a headache, or other physical signs. Many people become tense without being aware of it, while others are quite attuned to even small changes. Learning the physical, emotional or situational indicators that warn that your thoughts are about to begin spinning will enable you to take action to redirect your course.

Understanding the Damage of Spinning
To motivate yourself to do this work and maintain the high level of awareness needed to catch spins before they start, you must recognize that every negative thought is a threat to your well-being, a torpedo to your psyche that can harm every aspect of your life, and must be addressed immediately. Even if a negative thought were true and not some distortion (unlikely), it is not beneficial. Berating yourself for your failings and for being subject to such emotional upheaval are particularly worthless thoughts. The only thing you should be concerned about is preventing a spin from happening again.

Introspection can be arduous, but the effort is made worthwhile by recognizing the exceedingly bad effects on your life inflicted by every spinning episode:

Writing out your specific observations of the harm that spinning does to you on all these levels will help you resist the pull to sink into this state.

Believing in Yourself
Some people allow themselves to remain in upset states because they think they do not deserve better, that they have failed in some significant way, and that they deserve to suffer. If the rest of the world doesn’t inflict pain, they inflict it on themselves through negative thoughts, depriving themselves of pleasures, or by hoarding. Indeed, for many hoarders, such feelings of guilt, pain, and failure become so agonizing that they paralyze the will and the ability to take effective action to stop hoarding. The trouble is, these thoughts are delusions – useless falsehoods that can trap you in a downward spiral with absolutely no benefit. You do deserve to be happy, to have a better life, and to live without hoarding. Nothing you could ever have done deserves the punishment of spinning or hoarding.

What counts for having a happy life is reality, not distortion or judging. What IS, this minute, right NOW. The way to stay focused on the NOW and not get lost in your own head is to have a whole arsenal of tools that you can employ to both prevent going off track and to quickly pull yourself back if you slip.

Using Every Available Means to Change
When negative mental churning, a spin, begins, you need to quickly find a remedy that will interrupt it before relationships or situations are harmed, time is lost, or damaging behavior takes over. There are better remedies than medications - faster, more effective, safer, and with no bad side effects. All that pills do is change biochemistry, but you may be able to do a better job of that yourself. I am not saying that pills are never needed - sometimes they are lifesavers, but if you use these strategies, you may not need them. If you take medication for any pre-existing mental health condition, you should absolutely continue doing so unless told otherwise by your doctor, while still using these strategies.

Basic Tool Kit
When something upsets you, the same basic tools used to correct negative thoughts, distract, dismiss, counter, laughter, gratitude, and transform, are needed, usually in rapid-fire succession. Starting with distraction is probably the safest approach. You need to put something else, anything else, but preferably something positive and uplifting in your mind instead of whatever is upsetting you. (One of my housemates used the Lassie movies for this purpose; I like to replay the Harry Potter books in my mind.) Getting out in nature and focusing on the beauty around you is a particularly good approach; appreciating the splendor of every tree, bird, flower, cloud, rock, even blade of grass will do wonders for your mental health. The distraction needs to be something with strong emotional appeal. Having a list of distractions to use when upset means that you will be ready when emotional first aid is needed. It’s the same as for medical first aid – the time to get ready is before there is a need. Just as we know it is foolish to not have a first aid kit for physical injuries on hand, not having a ready list of activities and resources that can help you resist a spin is just inviting more pain.

My best distraction activities to stop a spin ___________________________________________

Resources to keep on hand in my emotional health first aid kit (such as humor books, videos)


After you have gotten your mind away from the immediate rush of distress, use laughter to lighten your mood and undermine the lure of giving up and letting a spin happen. Most Internet browsers allow home page ‘gadgets’ that instantly connect to many forms of humor, such as jokes, comedy routines, cartoons, and inspirational quotes – all of these are good sources of help. Whenever you find a humor or inspirational website that you like, bookmark it, sign up for email updates, or set it to update on your home page or a designated ‘Fun’ page via RSS feed , to keep it available as a resource for lightening your mood at any time. Set aside time every day to do something that provokes laughter. If you can laugh at yourself for being upset over something that you will ultimately recognize as trivial, that will be most beneficial. After all, if you are going to laugh about it in a year or two, why not now? Now is when you need to laugh at it.

Next, try to get some perspective on the situation. All of our upsets are petty and trivial in the grand scope of life, the planet, and the cosmos. Looking at astronomy pictures, especially those from the Hubble Space Telescope and similar devices, and contemplating the vastness of the universe revealed in these pictures is a great way to see how small our problems really are (http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html is a great resource for astronomy photos and http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/ combines great photos, explanations, and humor). Science programs on TV can be helpful for this purpose sometimes. Other sources of perspective are books, magazines, videos or TV programs about the struggles other people go through. Seeing even one program on Darfur or Somalia should banish self-pity forever.

If gaining perspective allows laughing at the absurdity of getting so upset over something so small and fleeting (and it is fleeting because our lives are so short), so much the better. As Richard Carlson said “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff.”

Transform Upset Energy - upsets are powerful bursts of energy, ugly energy perhaps, but energy
nonetheless. Make this energy beneficial rather than damaging by transforming it into the work needed
to improve your life. You cannot change other people and perhaps not your circumstances but the
energy can be used in ways that will be beneficial:
___ Exercise – go for a walk, pound a punching bag or a pillow, swim laps, dance, do any intense
physical activity that will help you safely discharge upset energy.
My best upset-energy-discharging exercise ___________________________________________

___ Sing, or, more like it, bellow. Don’t be shy – howl your distress at the moon, wail Carole King’s
“You’re So Vain”, or any other growly song that expresses your feelings (songs that encourage self-pity,
a trap that would only make your situation worse, are not a good choice). You don’t need a good voice
to benefit from the circulatory and respiratory boost this will give while discharging lots of upset energy.
My best upset-transforming songs  _________________________________________________

___ Make a mix-tape of mood-elevating music to lift your spirits
My best uplifting music __________________________________________________________

___ Clean and clear things out - this is a fabulous use of upset energy. You may not be able to control
anything else in your life but you can control the mess, dirt, and clutter. Envisioning the face of whoever
upset you on the dirt (“Take that, you dirty so-and-so”) you are wiping or sweeping up, so much the better,
particularly if you are unable to express your upset with the person who triggered it.
My best upset-transforming cleaning area/activity _____________________________________

___ Play an instrument. Music requires intense concentration and re-directs energy in a more positive direction.

___ Consider containment – sometimes wrapping yourself tightly in a blanket or other safe device will
transform upset feelings. Just as babies relax when swaddled, and dogs and cattle calm when contained,
some adults benefit from containment (HBO’s Temple Grandin movie demonstrated this principle).
Be sure that you can easily get out of whatever device or space you use and that breathing is unimpeded.

___ Meditate. As with relaxation, meditation can be challenging when upset. However, if you can route
that intense energy into a practice that is good for you, the benefit can be enormous.

Self-Care During an Upset
When you are upset, hurt, angry, depressed, or in any other negative state, increase your self care to
ensure the release of healthy endorphins and prevent damage. In addition to the usual self-care techniques,
here are some that may reduce upsetness and can be quickly applied:

___ Dark chocolate, in moderation (2 - 4 squares). Milk chocolate, alas, does not have the same
endorphin-generating and heart-protective effect.

___ Calm your breath. Getting upset often leads to hyper-ventilating, which will only fuel continued
distress. Do not try to slow your breathing, just auto-suggest that your breathing can calm down on its
own (it will). As your breathing calms down, your mind will as well.

___ Pay attention to your posture; negative emotions usually lead to tensing and contorting the body
in many unhealthy ways; straightening these tensions and contortions is sometimes enough all by itself
to release dark emotions (this is the principle behind Rolfing and similar body therapies). It is nearly
impossible to be spinning when your posture is military straight.

___ Monitor your self-talk – reject all negative thoughts and feelings no matter how logical they
may seem. Affirmations and mantras support finding and listening to your wiser, higher self.

___ Get enough sleep. We often become upset about things that would not bother us at all in a better
rested state. Many problems seem to dissolve after a nap, and sometimes solutions to those that do not
will become more apparent.

___ Make a pot of tea. In addition to helping with hydration, many herbal teas have calming properties,
and the ritual of making and pouring tea tends to be soothing.

Emotional Traps
Just as there are many practices that help cope with and prevent emotional crises, there are many things you should not do. Check off the items below that you know you have a tendency to do and need to avoid:

___ Dwelling on the past or speculating on the future

___ Avoid self-medicating with substances that will fuel another addiction. Hoarding and other addictions
          are difficult enough without adding another serious problem. Alcohol and most drugs, whether from the street
         or a pharmacy are unpredictable in their effects and have many harmful side-effects. If you can safely do
         without them, it is better to improve your mood through personal growth that will produce lasting benefits.

The practices below should be avoided whether you are using medication or not.

    ___ Never legitimize negative thoughts or feelings:

    ___ Don’t tell yourself ‘anyone would feel that way’. You aren’t a mind reader and cannot
            speak for anyone else’s feelings; the truth is everyone reacts differently.

    ___ These feelings may be how you have always reacted in the past but it does not have to be
            how you react this moment or in the future.

    ___ Saying ‘I have a right to be upset/angry/whatever’ may be true but it justifies thoughts
            and feelings that can never be beneficial, that do much harm by preventing seeing deeper
           truths, taking constructive action, or seeing what you need to do differently.

    ___ Thinking ‘giving up my anger/upset/any other negative feeling would make me a robot’.
            No, it won’t – it will make you a happy person, capable of vastly more love, depth,
            understanding, kindness and accomplishments than are ever possible or even imaginable
            while holding onto negative mental states.

    ___ Thinking ‘this is just who I am’ is false. None of us were born with negative thoughts or
           feelings. Babies don’t have negative thoughts. We learn these as we grow. But we can
           learn new and better ways of coping any time we choose.

    ___ Thinking ‘I can’t help myself’ is a delusion. It takes a lot of work, willingness to change,
           and consistent effort, but anyone can adopt new and better ways of coping with life’s ups
          and downs.

Preventing Emotional Crises
Like all other emergencies, the best way to deal with an emotional crisis is to prevent it with good daily practices. Regular daily self care is nearly magical for preventing upsets from happening in the first place.

If you truly hate the way that negativity feels and the wreckage it makes of your life, then use that as fuel to do the work to take charge of your emotions. The more you practice the self-care routines described above, the sooner you will see results and great improvement in your life. Be patient with yourself and understand that change takes time and mistakes are an important and essential part of learning (just make sure to reap the benefit of learning from every slip or error). Never berate yourself for making mistakes, for not being perfect, or not changing faster – just analyze each slip to learn how to do better and keep working.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is an Internet function that allows putting content from selected sites directly onto a Home page such as Yahoo or others. There is usually a square-ish orange button with white swishes that lets you designate the material to be placed on your page.

Richard Carlson, PhD, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things From Taking Over Your Life”. Highly recommended.

For all practices listed below, safety should be a dominant concern. Upset energy is powerful, easily leading one to over-do an activity. Identify the potential hazards in any activity and take whatever measures are needed to prevent injury.

Most of these ideas were suggested by my students who have found them helpful during difficult times.