How to Kick-Start an Upward Spiral

Written by: Ingrid Fetell Lee


Published on: September 8, 2022


Photo courtesy of Aleksandr Babarikin

When we’re burned out, we try to conserve energy by cutting our activities back to a bare minimum. We don’t indulge our hobbies. We don’t see friends, we don’t explore the city we live in, we don’t entertain the small little actions 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 restful things.

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

The psychological term for this is a downward spiral. Any time we end up triggered into 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 back the energy we’re lacking—because we’re emotionally exhausted. We don’t realize we’re doing it, which is what gives it that out-of-control destructive feeling.

To break out of a burnout-induced downward spiral, we need to do something that gives us joy (when we feel inclined to do it the least), which is what gives us the energy to get out of that downward spiral. It’s what I call the joy 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’re in an upward spiral, we actually take in more information from our peripheral vision; we’re more likely to notice opportunities for more joy. So 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 cope with stress and burnout by pushing through and putting off joy, there are a few telltale signs. These are the questions I encourage people to ask themselves:

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

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

  • When you find yourself with a spare 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 enjoying yourself if you haven’t crossed off every to-do on your list?

  • When good things are happening in your life, do you feel yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop?

  • Do you feel so overwhelmed by the state of the world that you find it hard to make plans for the future?

More yeses than noes suggests that someone might benefit from bringing small doses of joy into their everyday life. My recommendation is to start small. When you notice you’re 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 is 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?