How To Regain Control When Things Are Spiraling

Relapse is a part of recovery. Here’s how you can get back up after a fall.

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | October 9, 2022

When we fail the fourth, fifth, or tenth time after promising ourselves that we will do better, it can be difficult to trust ourselves again. Scary and disturbing questions begin to haunt us, such as:

  • "Am I just poorly made?"
  • "Is this what my life is going to be like forever?"
  • "What if I never change and end up alone?"
  • "Do I just not want to be happy ever? Am I innately self-destructive?"

These questions create an impossible narrative that doesn't allow sufficient space for mess-ups or mistakes, which are part of the self-growth formula. You may experience self-sabotage.

What, then, is the right way to look at life's inevitable disappointments so you don't drive yourself into a downward spiral? Here are three techniques to use when our failures cause our life to spin out of control.

#1. Choose self-compassion over self-criticism

We sometimes get trapped in vicious cycles of setting impossible standards, failing to reach them, and feeling insurmountable shame as a result (which can prompt us to set even higher standards for the next time).

The most effective way to break this cycle is to eliminate shame and self-punishment through self-compassion — that is, giving ourselves the same kindness we would give to other people in our position.

According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, you show compassion to yourself when you:

  1. Notice when you are in pain (without detaching from, or getting caught up in, your feelings)
  2. Realize that experiencing distress or making mistakes is part of being human (as opposed to feeling isolated by these experiences)
  3. Offer yourself kindness (as opposed to being harshly self-critical)

Not only does self-compassion have a positive impact on our well-being and physical health, but it can also help change the trajectory of our life by breaking pathological patterns we can get stuck in.

Here's an exercise for anyone who struggles with self-compassion: react to your actions in the same way you would to those of a loved one. For example, if your best friend keeps going back to the same toxic ex, do you reprimand them and abandon them? Or do you point out their mistakes to them and help them book a therapy session? Or, if your sibling is too scared to leave a job they are unhappy with, do you chastise them by telling them they are not good enough? Or, do you help them figure out a way to leave their job without destroying their life?

#2. Learn how to hit the pause button

The idea of facing the negative consequences of our actions can send us into an avoidance spiral. We can run away from them and waste precious time that we could have used to repair the problem.

This makes for a compromised life experience – we judge ourselves, over-respond to feelings of 'overwhelm,' and develop maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Studies show that mindfulness can help heal such issues and help us rediscover our psychological center.

Exercising mindfulness through practices like meditation, certain types of therapy like Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and observing our thoughts and feelings objectively can help us develop what researchers call a 'mindful personality.'

To put it simply, mindfulness can help undo the knots that we have carried with us our whole lives.

So, the next time you feel tempted to go off the rails, take a beat, think about the long-term consequences your actions might have, and let your feelings wash over you and recede before making any rash decisions.

#3. Draft your epilogue for perspective

The thought that we will cease to exist one day is in some ways sad, but it can also inspire change and growth if we shift our perspective a bit.

Instead of thinking about when, how, or why you will die, think about how you want to be remembered and the legacy you want to leave behind. It does not have to be lofty, it just needs to be genuine.

A recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that when people were asked about how they wanted to be remembered or when they were asked to share memories that they thought represented them, most people narrated stories that portrayed them as good, virtuous people. It also inspired them to be better versions of themselves in the future.

Embracing our mortality can help us become the best version of ourselves. It can also remind us of certain parts of ourselves that are perhaps under-appreciated.

Here's another exercise to help break the downward spiral: write down the legacy and memories we want to leave behind and try to live up to that narrative as best you can.


We are all our own worst enemies at times. To break a self-defeating, downward thought spiral, (1) be kinder to yourself by choosing self-compassion over self-criticism, (2) practice mindfulness to ride out emotional swings, and (3) think about the legacy you'd like to leave behind and let that guide your current actions.