How to kickstart an upward spiral

How to kickstart an upward spiral

Written by: Ingrid Fetell Lee

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Published on: September 8, 2022

Photo courtesy of Alexander Babarikin

When we are burnt out, we try to conserve energy by cutting our activities to a minimum. We do not spoil our hobbies. We don’t see friends, we don’t explore the city we live in, we don’t entertain the small little acts that give life its joy. Instead, we do things that require very little of us. We binge-watch shows, and we sleep in, and we do those supposedly relaxing things.

Without intending to, we make our lives smaller. And as our lives get smaller, they become less social, less inspiring and less vibrant. We begin to feel more isolated and less energetic. We try to do even less to save more energy, and we subsequently feel worse.

The psychological term for this is a downward spiral. Whenever we end up being triggered in a negative state, it’s natural for us to comfort ourselves in ways that perpetuate that state, like depriving ourselves of behaviors that bring us joy—and that can give us that energy back , we lack – because we are emotionally exhausted. We don’t realize we’re doing it, which is what gives it that destructive, out-of-control feeling.

To break out of a burnout-induced downward spiral, we need to do something that brings us joy (at least when we feel inclined to do it), which is what gives us the energy to get out of the downward spiral . This is what I call the happiness paradox.

The antidote to a downward spiral is its opposite: a positive feedback loop that can disrupt a downward spiral and catalyze an upward one. And all you need to create the spark of momentum for an upward spiral are small moments of joy. Research shows that when we are in an upward spiral, we actually take in more information from our peripheral vision; we are more likely to notice opportunities for more joy. Just as downward spirals perpetuate behaviors that leave us in a negative mood, upward spirals lead us to do things that end up making us happier in the long run.

If you’ve learned to deal with stress and burnout by pushing through and postponing joy, there are a few telltale signs. These are the questions I encourage people to ask themselves:

  • When you go through a stressful period, do you put off celebrations or events you might otherwise look forward to?

  • Do you find it difficult to be fully present when you spend time with family or friends?

  • When you have a free hour, do you use it to catch up on tasks that have been put on hold instead of resting or doing something fun?

  • Do you spend most evenings on the couch, scrolling, too exhausted to do anything else?

  • Do you feel guilty about enjoying yourself if you haven’t crossed off every to-do on your list?

  • When good things happen in your life, do you feel like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop?

  • Do you feel so overwhelmed by the state of the world that you find it difficult to plan for the future?

More yeses than nos suggest that someone can benefit from bringing small doses of joy into their everyday life. My recommendation is to start small. When you notice that you are stressed or overwhelmed, try doing just five minutes of something that is purely fun for you. If you can’t think of anything, try asking yourself: What’s the last thing that made me smile in the middle of a busy day? Or what is an activity I do that gives me more energy, not less?

The Joy Sessions

Ingrid Fetell Lee is the host three of her incredible live workshops this fall. The first, on September 21, is designed to help you find joy in hard times. The second, held in October, will help you get stuck in (and identify tangible, personal ways to find the start of the upward spiral). The November workshop, the third in the series, is about learning to dream again.

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