In mindfulness, we call brain loops rumination. As the word suggests it is about attempting to digest information by processing it over and over again. Although that might sound similar to contemplation, it is most often accompanied by worry, negativity, and a lack of self-compassion. Here we have the recipe for a full brain loop and we find ourselves going nowhere, except in circles!
The problem with brain-looping rumination is that it feeds anxiety and is extremely draining. If we give ourselves over to it, we are unlikely to solve our problems. Instead, we are teaching our brains to become even more impressive worriers by grooving and re-grooving the related neural pathways. Neuroscience teaches us that the brain is plastic and can develop with you throughout your lifetime based on how you use it. It also warns that dominant mental states like worry, over time, can become neural traits.
We all know the feeling of being stuck in a loop of worry and how it can be both paralysing and exhausting. If this becomes a regular habit, we are less likely to be proactive in terms of self-care and wellbeing and due to the cumulative neuroplasticity effect – it becomes harder to course correct and make different choices.
If you notice yourself becoming preoccupied with a repetitive thought, a replay of a conversation or event or seem to be obsessing over something without making any progress, try and bring awareness to the rumination by asking: am I creating or stuck in a brain loop? Then experiment with these techniques and see which works best for you:
1 – Just STOP
If you find yourself starting a brain loop, I recommend trying a short mindfulness practice called STOP, which helps you regain clarity and calm before deciding your next move.
- Stop and pause. Ground yourself for a moment. Feel gravity pushing you into your seat or stance.
- Take a series of conscious breaths feeling the physical sensations of the breath in the body and bring both palms together holding your hands in a gentle clasp. Feel the warmth and energy of your aliveness.
- Open – widen the focus of your awareness by observing non-judgmentally what is happening internally and externally. Is there a new opportunity presenting itself?
2 – Journal
Press pause on the loop, reflect and journal freely on these questions:
What is most important to me in this situation?
What emotions are present right now?
What is in my control?
What is my next right step?
3 – Tune-In For A Calming Meditation
There is an abundance of good meditation material online. When a brain loop shows up – if it feels like a trap – make the powerful choice to course correct by heading into one of your favourite meditations. I always find Jack Kornfield full of wisdom and care. Try this one freely available on Insight Timer: https://insighttimer.com/jackkornfield/guided-meditations/a-steady-heart
4 – Commit A Random Act of Kindness
There is surely no better way to avert a pattern of worry and repetition than by committing a random act of kindness. Get your colleague their favourite treat. Gift a meaningful book to a friend. Call or write a teacher and thank them for their wisdom. Guaranteed to shift your focus and bring you back to the centre.
5 – Watch Out For The Secondary Arrows!
One of the most useful lessons from mindfulness is that of the primary and secondary arrows. Let’s imagine Alex lost their job. The primary arrow is losing the job. The primary arrow is a fact. It happened and has consequences in the real world. The secondary arrows are thoughts like these:
– I won’t be able to pay the mortgage.
– I’m going to starve.
– I’m going to end up homeless.
You might recognise this style of thinking known as catastrophising as something that the human brain is particularly good at. They are secondary arrows because they are Alex’s judgments and predictions of future events which have not yet happened. They do not exist as facts. However, Alex feels the sting of these secondary arrows just as keenly.
Through mindfulness, we learn to differentiate between the primary arrows and the secondary ones – between what is real and what is imagined. We learn to work with the facts and navigate towards rational planning and responsiveness rather than anxiety or imagined catastrophe. In simple terms, mindfulness can help us stay grounded in reality and productive through our challenges.
So go easy over the coming weeks and be gentle with yourself when you notice a loop arising. Get creative with your responses and revel in your ability to create a new way of being. You may just see that the loops are turning into doorways. On the other side – a more centred, calm and resourceful you.
By Neil Seligman
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