What does downward spiral mean

How To Recognise a Downward Spiral And What To Do

Living with Depression, With Audio | by Blurt Team | Print This Post

A downward spiral is when we can feel ourselves slipping into a lower mood and our mental health feels as though it’s declining. They can be hard to handle because we might not really understand why things are sliding again. The nature of mental illness is that it drains our cognitive functions and the downward spiral comes with a sense of hopelessness, frustration, and oftentimes, anger.


We’ve all got areas of our lives which trigger us to feel not particularly good. We sometimes too, have things going on that aren’t particularly healthy for us and these things will be different for different people. They could include things like wonky relationships, taking on too much, living with sustained stress or being alone for extended periods of time.

It can take a lot of thinking, talking, and trial and error, to work out what our triggers might be. We might not be able to spot them all in ourselves; we might need to talk to those close to us to work out some of our triggers or seek professional help to do so. Triggers can change over time, too. Working out what they are can be a constant work in progress.

We can’t necessarily avoid all our triggers. However, once we’re aware of our triggers, we’re more likely to be able to start noticing changes in our mood and adjust things accordingly. For example, if being around people too much has caused our mood to drop, we might be able to build in a little more alone time until we’re feeling better.

Early Warning Signs

We all have early warning signs that our mood is beginning to slip or that we’re heading towards a downward spiral but we don’t always take note of them nor heed them. Understanding those, somewhat subtle, signs that things aren’t going well requires self-awareness and listening to how different situations feel to us.

Perhaps we’ve always slept brilliantly but are experiencing a period of disrupted sleep. Perhaps we’ve always had a hearty appetite but we’ve lost interest in food. Perhaps we’ve been cancelling lots of plans, even those with our most favourite people. We might be experiencing unexplained aches and pains or find that we’re more tearful or fearful than we usually tend to be. It could be that we’re dreading going into work, even a job we love.

These signs are often the first alarm bells that something’s not quite right. Taking notice of them can mean we’ll take self-care action earlier than we might otherwise do. Having an awareness of them can allow us to make a plan for what we could do if one of our signs appears.

What To Do About It

Planning for the bad times can be triggering in itself, it can take us back to where we don’t ever want to be again. It can feel as though being ready for another grotty period, can somehow think it into being. But there’s also something quite comforting and reassuring about having a process in place which helps us to take action earlier on in the downward spiral than we might have done in the past.

Our toolkit might include some daily self-care non-negotiables; the things we know nourish us and keep us mentally well. A list of ‘emergency self-care‘ for the tougher times. A list of organisations we might reach out to for support. Maybe we give our loved ones a list of what they might be able to do to ‘reach-in‘. Perhaps we have a crisis plan in place ‘just in case‘ and it’s communicated to our loved ones so that they understand how and when to help.

Then, when we start to experience and notice our early warning signs, we’re not put on the spot, we know what to do. Whether that’s to up the self-care ante, ask for help, accept help from our loved one or use the crisis help available. We can use our hindsight, as our foresight too.

A Slip Doesn’t Always Mean A Relapse

One of the things we might fear when we can feel things slipping is that we’ll end up in the middle of a relapse. It can be scary to be facing that. Living with mental ill health can be a lonely and painful place to be. Once we’ve managed to improve things a little, the prospect of being in a horribly low place again can be terrifying.

A slip doesn’t always mean a relapse. Our mental health naturally fluctuates, it’s not ever static (as much as we’d very much prefer it to be), and that fluctuation can be influenced by several factors. At other times, it might be the beginning of a downward spiral. But if we have an idea of our early warning signs, and some plans as to what to do about them, it can help us to stop our mental health from deteriorating further.

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The Downward Spiral: What it is & How to Reverse it


  • What is a Downward Spiral?
  • Depression
  • Risk Factors
  • What Causes a Spiral?
  • How to Recognize Spiraling
  • Warning Signs of a Spiral
  • How to Break Out of a Spiral
  • Reach Out for Support

Spiraling into a deep depressive episode is common in individuals with depression. Once an individual goes through one depressive episode, they become more likely to go through another one. Depression is a common mental health disorder that affects 4.8% of US adults as of 20194.

While in a spiral, individuals may not be aware of the downward trajectory of their depression. A downward spiral may vary in time duration, but while in the spiral it may become hard to recognize how far down the spiral you have gone.

The trajectory of the spiral may be easily recognized by friends and family, but the depressed spiral victim may not see the signs. A different perspective may be necessary to stop or reverse the downward spiral of depression.

Learning to recognize the signs of a downward spiral can be life-changing for mental health and well-being. With the proper tools and support the spiral can be reversed or moved in an upward direction rather than downward.

What is a Downward Spiral?

A downward spiral with depression is a situation defined by a series of negative thoughts, feelings, or actions that feed into themselves repeatedly causing the situation to become progressively worse. Learning to recognize a spiral before making it to the bottom can help avoid potential downward spirals in the future.

Stages of the depression spiral that can lead to depression spiraling out of control:

  1. Negative experience(s)
  2. Suppressing emotions
  3. Repetitive negative thinking
  4. Avoidance behaviors


Stopping and recognizing these stages can help stop or reverse the downward spiral of depression. 


Sadness is a common emotion that everyone experiences from time to time. Chronic and clinical depression, however, can hinder the ability to participate in life. Depression is not a weakness, and in some cases, is a chemical disruption in the brain that requires therapy, medication, or both.

Types of depression include1: