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A teenage man doesn't know if he is experiencing a mental spiral or a mental health condition.

Is It a Mental Spiral or a Mental Health Condition?

4 min.

Having recurrent negative thoughts, also known as a mental spiral, isn’t a mental health condition in and of itself, but it’s often linked to issues like anxiety and depression.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

February 5, 2024


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Table of Contents

A mental spiral happens when thoughts take a negative turn, leading to a cycle of increasing negativity. While not a mental health condition in and of itself, this pattern is often associated with issues like anxiety and depression. For that reason, recognizing the factors that cause a mental spiral, warning signs, and using effective strategies are vital in promoting emotional well-being. Keep reading to learn about the link between mental spirals and mental health.

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What is a mental spiral?

A “mental spiral” is when a person’s thoughts or emotions become more negative and overwhelming, causing their mental well-being to worsen. This cycle of escalating negative thoughts and feelings can be linked to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or stress. In a mental spiral, negative thoughts may intensify over time, making it challenging for people to break free from the cycle. It’s crucial for those going through a mental spiral to seek help and support to address their emotional well-being.

Factors that can cause a mental spiral

Many factors can cause a mental spiral, ranging from past traumas to ongoing stressful life events. Below, we delve into common causes of mental spirals. 

Stressful life events

When people experience significant life changes, traumas, or challenging situations, it can make them feel a lot of negative emotions and thoughts. Dealing with these situations can be hard and might lead to a downward spiral in their mental well-being.

Negative thought patterns

Continuously thinking negatively about oneself, being overly self-critical, or having distorted thinking can worsen a person’s mental state. Over time, these repeating negative thoughts can make it difficult to see things positively and break out of the cycle.

Past trauma

Difficult times can resurface past traumas, causing a person’s mental well-being to decline. The feelings from previous experiences can affect how someone sees and reacts to things now, strengthening negative thoughts and emotions.

Chronic stress

Continual stress from work, relationships, or other parts of life can slowly lead to a decline in mental well-being. Exposure to stress for a long time can wear down a person’s ability to handle things well, worsening their mental state.

How to recognize when a worry or negative thought spirals into a mental health issue

If negative thoughts stick around longer than usual after a stressful situation or start getting in the way of your daily life—like work, relationships, or self-care—it might signal a more serious mental health issue. Physical symptoms, such as changes in appetite, sleep issues, fatigue, or discomfort, could also be a sign that persistent negative thoughts are related to a mental health issue. If you find it hard to break the cycle of negative thoughts despite trying to focus on the positive, it might signal underlying mental health issues, too. Seeking support or professional help can benefit your overall well-being if you notice any of these signs.

How to stop a mental spiral

To stop a mental spiral, use strategies to break negative thought patterns. Here are practical steps to help you interrupt and redirect these thoughts:

1. Challenge negative thoughts

Challenge the negative thoughts that contribute to the spiral. Ask yourself if these thoughts are based on facts or assumptions, and look for evidence that contradicts the negative beliefs.

2. Practice mindfulness

Engage in mindfulness techniques to bring yourself into the present moment. Observing thoughts without judgment helps you step back from the spiral and regain control.

3. Distract yourself

Engage in activities that capture your attention and shift your focus away from negative thoughts. These activities could be a hobby, listening to music, or watching a movie.

A teenage girl distracts herself with listening to music to stop a mental spiral.

4. Connect with others

Reach out to friends, family, or a supportive community. Sharing your thoughts with someone you trust can provide a fresh perspective and emotional support.

4. Professional Support

If the mental spiral persists or significantly impacts your daily life, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Therapy can provide guidance and tools to address underlying issues contributing to negative thought patterns.

How Charlie Health can help with mental spirals

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental spirals or persistent negative thoughts, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health offers a virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) that provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing your mental health is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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