Halting thought spirals

Update: several weeks after writing this, I no longer remember most of what is written in this post, but I still remember one of the two basic ideas: reactions-to-reactions are the cause of thought spirals. This lets me figure out whether what I'm doing will help me rid of the thought spiral I currently have: am I just looking at my reactions-to-reactions and trying to cause more of them? Then it's not going to work.

I went to a club recently. With a few people. Who were mostly ignoring me.

I was dancing and shouting monologues, alternating between feeling good and feeling bad.

While doing that I figured out how thought spirals happen. There are two major components:

COMPONENT 1: Paying attention to your own emotions feels good, regardless of the content of the emotion

This is the first component of a thought spiral. Paying attention to your own emotions, even painful emotions, feels good.

If something bad happens to me, I keep thinking about it. Like that extra tooth I have — I can't stop touching it with my tongue. And I was observing this happening in the club: feeling bad is richer than feeling nothing.

Over the past year, I've been noticing how a lot of things — probably most things — can feel good. Smells are inherently good! Looking at things is inherently good! Colors are inherently good! Sounds are inherently good! People are inherently good! Etc, etc. (See also: How to enjoy submissiveness and domination, which is about a similar topic.)

Someone on Twitter asked why kids bite apples:

Living with kids is basically a continuous series of little things like this, where you go "but... why? why would you do this?"

— @lisatomic5, Oct 17, 2020

And I replied:

Because interacting with the world is fun

Any interaction with the world is fun

And spoiling things is a particular kind of interaction, too, because spoiled and non-spoiled things feel differently in my mind

— @theorangealt, Oct 18, 2020

I think it's the same with emotions. "But... why? Why would you do this?", except that it's not about biting an apple but about blaming yourself.

When you blame yourself, you get to focus on your feelings. You get to remember a lot of things from your life, perhaps things that nobody else ever paid attention to. It is painful, sure, and it makes the moment richer than it would have been otherwise. So — duh. Of course it's fun.

Should you do anything about this? I think not.

COMPONENT 2: Reactions are in themselves reaction-provoking

This second component is the one I think you should actually change.

When you observe your emotions, you can react to them in different ways.


Just paying attention to the emotion.

I tried singing "I feel bad and I feel bad, and I feel I feel I feel bad, and I feel bad and I feel bad, and I feel-feel-feel I feel bad" when I was in the club and the music was loud enough — that was kinda cool.


Imagining what you would say if you were a certain character / in a certain conversation.

I do this a lot. I feel something and then I basically mutter something like "this is a coping mechanism" or whatever — this is the character of "Artyom who is dispassionately analysing his behavior".

There are many other characters. What would you say about this on Twitter later? What would you say to a friend who saw you crying? What would you say to your therapist? Etc.


Imagining or remembering others' reactions to the emotion / to you in general.

Maybe you talked about feeling bad on Twitter and somebody replied with "check your privilege, others have it way worse". It made you feel a certain way. Choosing the society-responding reaction = reliving it.

Okay, those are the three ways. Maybe there are some other ways. Who knows.

Now, the thing about those three ways is that all of them cause further reactions.

Spoiler alert: the after-acknowledging reactions are usually better.

  • If you acknowledge something enough times, eventually you might get bored of the emotion. Or you might get hungry. Or you might start thinking "I don't like it". Or you might think "I feel like I won't be able to change this". Etc. The general shape of reactions to "I notice" is either "I want", "I like", "I dislike", or "I'm bored".
  • If you character-respond, you will usually have a reaction to the character you've imagined. And in my case, I usually have negative reactions to those characters, because they are not me. They are phony. I am not an expert I pretend to be. Etc.
  • If you society-respond, you will relive the reactions you'd felt before.

Now, the great thing about thought spirals is that they are usually character-responding and society-responding and then responding to the previous response and so on and so forth. It's possible to ENDLESSLY society-respond to your own society-responses:

I feel bad → I shouldn't feel bad → I can feel bad but it would be better if I did X instead → if I keep whining like that my friends will feel such and such → etc.

Wait, no, that's not the great thing about thought spirals. It's the horrible thing. The great thing is that you can avoid thought spirals just by acknowledging things instead of character-responding or society-responding to them.

Q: "this sounds suspiciously like meditation or something"

The problem with meditation is that it's boring. You acknowledge things and then nothing gets done.

You shouldn't do that.

When you acknowledge things, you will still have reactions (or more like "continuations"), but they will be much more diverse because there's a ton of stuff going on in your head at the same time. Some of them will be actionable. I have underlined the actionable ones:

I feel bad. I feel bored of acknowledging that I feel bad, and I want to switch to something else. The music is kinda fun. I want to tap my foot. I want to explore this idea some more. I want a hug. I probably won't get a hug. I feel bad about this. I want tea. I can make tea when I'm back home.

Having actionable reactions is absolutely terrific — because finding something actionable is the right way to a) get out of thought spirals and b) actually fix things. Meditation would have you just sitting and acknowledging stuff, without acting on it. If this is your complaint against meditation, then please try my way instead of doing any meditation.

Q: "you probably want to talk a bit about how the same response can be acknowledging or it can be not-acknowledging"

Oh yes, I want to talk about that. How did you know?

Let's say you're thinking and you come up with a brilliant sentence, like:

I am a coping mechanism.

It's vague, it's cool, it reminds you of I Am a Strange Loop. Is it acknowledging or is it character-responding?

The answer is:

  • If you imagine yourself tweeting that, it's character-responding.
  • If you want to actually think about it, it's acknowledging.
  • If you just came up with a cool sentence and your real feeling is "hey, here's a cool sentence", it's also acknowledging.

Same with everything else. "I can't change" can be an observation: "I feel like I can't change". Or it can be something you imagine yourself complaining about (and then it makes you look/appear to be a certain way, and then you get a reaction to that and yada yada).

Q: "did you mention that words are important for acknowledging things"

I didn't, thanks.

Words are important for acknowledging things. WORDS ARE A TOOL FOR ACKNOWLEDGING THINGS. I am writing this in caps because it's witty and memorable and I don't want you to miss it.

I think that writing something down, or saying it out loud, can be much better for acknowledging things than just thinking about it. That's another stone in the garden of meditation.