How to Break the Loop in Your Head
We've all fallen prey to shame spirals and rumination. In his book, Elisha Goldstein, PhD, helps you identify and escape those bad-mood traps.
Illustration: Logan Faerber/Imagezoo/Getty Images
Who doesn't know that thrumming, repetitive thinking that plays on an endless loop in our brains? It can start with anything—a grouchy look from someone at the gym, a dumb mistake made at work, a breakup with a spouse, a breakdown in the dry-cleaning line—and somehow spiral into everything that's wrong with you and wrong with the world. Such ingrained negative-thought patterns can be destructive and need to be broken. Elisha Goldstein, author of Uncovering Happiness, says that we often fail, despite best efforts, at breaking the cycle because we don't see the full picture.
Goldstein has studied what is known as the depression loop—a cycle of negative thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors—that can essentially trap you in a permanent bad mood. But beyond just occurring with depression, this pattern can also show up when you're feeling anxious, ashamed or even full of self-doubt.
"These loops happen automatically—we're not consciously stepping into that spiral. We find ourselves there out of habit," Goldstein says. Research shows that our brains are actually conditioned to remember these bad-mood loops, which typically have four stages. The good news is that by changing our behaviors, we can, in effect, rewire our brains.
This is where mapping the four parts of the negative-thought cycle can come in handy. Once you know what they are, you can find different ways of responding to the cues. Goldstein walks patients through a four-step mapping exercise. It starts with writing down the negative thoughts; and then, the physical sensations that accompany them. Next, patients note any emotions that arise. Finally, they take note of the behaviors that follow. In Goldstein's experience, it's identifying sensations (step two) that trips people up the most. We're so stuck in our heads that we aren't always aware of how our emotions feel in our bodies. As soon as he starts suggesting examples of what his patients may be feeling—heaviness for depression, chest constriction for anxiety—they start to get the picture.
If you're having trouble identifying your cues, he suggests starting with the behaviors you know aren't great. Even if you're not aware of what thoughts you're trying to avoid, Goldstein says we're usually familiar with our bad habits—like sleeping, eating or drinking too much. If you take stock of how you're feeling physically, or what thought occurred just before you dove head-first into a gin and tonic, you can work backward to fill in the missing pieces.
While you probably won't be able to avoid these downward spirals completely, Goldstein says mapping out the loops you find yourself in can at least help you get back on track more quickly. You can start the exercise below and save to your profile.
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