How To Stop Dwelling On Negative Thoughts By Breaking The Loop

Aug 06, 2022

How to stop dwelling on negative thoughts by breaking the loop

(Photo by Stas Knop)

Here we go again

Do you find yourself having the same kind of negative interactions with people in your life? That whenever certain situations arise they always end up the same way, no matter who they are with? This can be because of people's programmed methods of behavior. 

It may look like the past is repeating itself based on your memories and emotions. So you start to see what you believe is the full picture of the situation. Your brain fills in gaps and assumes things about what's happening.

At some point in life we adopt "default settings" for interacting with other people. You don't even realize that you are reacting instead of acting. These are called loops. 

Loops cause our brain to go around and around like a carousel, but we always get off at the same place. Try to recognize it when it's happening. Noticing the behavior in the moment will give you the best chance of making positive changes

What is going on in your head?

There is a model for the human brain that can help you understand why this happens. Neuroscientist Paul MacLean developed and wrote about it in his book, The Triune Brain. The idea of this model is that our brain has 3 sections: survivalist, emotional and logical. 


This region is at the center of the brain, called the basal ganglia. It's the core and the oldest area evolutionarily. It controls heart rate and breathing, among many other critical processes. It's literally the life support system.


The limbic system is the emotional center of the brain. It wraps around the primitive survivalist region and is "second-in-command."


The neocortex makes the outer layer of the brain. It allows you to plan, reason, and interpret your behavior. This is where you make conscious decisions. While this region of the brain seems to think a lot of itself, it's not as in control as it likes to believe.

Of course, the brain is quite a bit more complicated than that, but it's a useful model for this discussion. The point is that when you decide to make a change, that decision is made in your neocortex. That also happens to be the part of your brain that's the least capable of doing anything about changing.

The part of your brain that decides to change is not directly in charge of the part that deals with reactions and emotions. So in a sense, you are powerless to change your emotions "in the moment." You can try and bury them, but they will just resurface somewhere else. The loop will continue.

What does looping look like?

One form of looping is having imaginary conversations in your head with someone. Preparing what you will say to them, especially if you expect an argument. You go over and over it. You try to think of every possible response to what the other person might say.

In these mock showdowns you are brave and quick-witted. You have the benefit of preparation and you believe that you are in the right. 

But when they come up in the real world, these conversations don't often go as planned. Maybe it was a misunderstanding. There was information that you were unaware of. The person does not respond in an adversarial way like you anticipated. 

Try to start noticing when you're simulating an argument. Once you realize you're in that loop, you should interrupt it. Remind yourself there is no need to prepare for something that you cannot predict accurately. It is a form of dwelling on negativity and it robs you of time that could be better spent. It poisons relationships and alienates you. 

Spend your time and energy on things that make you happy, instead of things that upset you.

Stepping away from the ride

The only way to break the loop is to recognize it while it's happening. If you can learn to recognize that you are operating in a negative pattern, you can decide logically to take a different action. You must work from the outside in. Form a new habit by interrupting the old one every time it appears and replacing it with a new one.

Unfortunately, you do not get to choose your feelings. Impulses emanate out from your emotional brain, then to your memory centers. Only after that do they reach your conscious mind. But, once you're conscious of this process, you can start choosing how to react.

We are creatures of habit. Whichever behaviors we reinforce grow stronger and stronger. Altering how you respond in these stressful times can change how they make you feel. Put on the brakes, take a breath, and relax; decide not to linger on this problem. That will bring you closer to approaching situations in the future in a calmer, more intentional manner. 

Looping almost always stems from feelings of being wronged or betrayal. Hurt people hurt people. You can choose to stop that cycle by finding the root of those feelings. Pay attention to how you feel and ask yourself if passing that hurt on to someone else is really what you want to do. How can this situation be resolved so that everyone, including yourself, is respected?

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