The Snowball Effect: Are Things As Bad As They Might Seem?

We will all recognise this. We have all been in the situation where one thing has gone a bit awry or we’ve had one difficult thing to face, and before we know it, we feel like we have a wave of anxiety, dread or despair come over us about all aspects of life. This is particularly prominent with anxiety, whereby we become anxious about one thing, and it quickly ‘snowballs’ into something much larger, something more catastrophic and often, irritational. Similarly, low mood can skilfully ‘filter’ our thinking to the point where we are only noticing the bad things; again our perceptions about ourselves, our lives and our ability to cope can snowball into a vicious cycle quite quickly. It is easy, in the face of this, to become overwhelmed and doubt our ability to get back out of this tailspin.

Several unhelpful patterns in our thinking can add to this. Common traps include:

  • ‘All’ or ‘nothing’ thinking, also known as black and white thinking, in which we struggle to hold onto the middle ground and instead engage in very fixed thinking about things being ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’; total success or total failure.
  • Jumping to conclusions: making a prediction or judgement without evidence to support it.
  • Overgeneralisation: seeing one negative thing as evidence of everything being awful, or everything going wrong.
  • Catastrophising: predicting the worst possible outcome; exaggerating the odds of bad things happening and minimising the chances of good things happening.
  • Mental filter: focusing almost exclusively on the negatives and filtering out the positives.
  • Shoulds, musts, oughts: holding strict rules about how you and others ‘should’ or ‘must’ be leading to unrealistic expectations and frustration.

If we start thinking in this way, and worse, ruminate persistently in this way, our moods can very quickly dip and our anxieties rise. From this perspective, it can be extremely difficult to spot a way out; to notice these patterns in our thinking or to believe that things could be viewed in a different light. Our response to this is critical; it can be tempting to withdraw, to avoid feared situations, to lose motivation to try, or to engage in behaviours designed to alleviate our worries. While seeming effective in the short term, over time they simply maintain low mood and perpetuate anxiety. So, what can we do? How do we stop the snowball once it’s started? It’s not easy and is, unfortunately, a process, not a switch.

  • The key is to break things back down. Try to regain perspective by standing back, by challenging some of our thought patterns and trying to reassess things more objectively. This is much easier said than done. Writing things down, talking to a friend (and trying to listen to what they have to say…) and thinking about what you would say to someone else in the same situation, can all help. Try to actively look for the positive or the more neutral middle ground. Notice the bits your mind has skipped over or filtered out. For me, I find a pragmatic approach helps; is it doing me any favours to think in this way? Probably not. Even if the worst possible outcome does happen, am I better off for thinking about it at length in advance? Definitely not.
  • Keep doing things. As hard as it is, trying to maintain your routine, your usual activities and socialising is even more important in these moments. Keeping busy can offer an effective distraction from overthinking in the short term.
  • Do more of what you need to do to manage your mood; keeping up with exercise, mindfulness or sleep.
  • Start with one thing at a time. None of these things are easy once we’re in a vicious cycle so it’s important to try and focus on one thing at a time. Trying to wrestle yourself out of it in one go is likely to result in too much pressure, expectation and frustration. As tricky as a vicious cycle can be, a virtuous one is equally powerful. So, start with one thing and let the rest build up naturally. It might just be enough to notice that your mind is snowballing again…

If these experiences are familiar to you, this might give you some tips to try. If you’re struggling however, consider getting some extra support. The evidence base for anxiety and low mood includes talking therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. A therapist can help you work through difficulties at your own pace, providing you with the resilience and skills needed now and in the future to better manage your mood yourself.

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