Stuck in a rut—or a loop? “Thoughts we’ve had thousands of times are easier to have again than new, creative thoughts. ... So what are we to do about our loops getting stronger with every repetition?”
The Beatles’ song “Help!” hit number one in September 1965. Fifty-five years later, with a global pandemic, a politically divided country, protests and violence in our cities, and climate change on our minds, it’s hard to imagine a one-word song title that better captures what we’re feeling.
A few years ago, when I realized that most of the problems for which people consult me have a stuck-in-a-loop pattern to them, I made “help” into an acronym: Human Existential Looping Problem. I think of this as a meta-condition that applies to most of the hundreds of mental health conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that therapists like me use to sort human suffering.
Do you suffer from H.E.L.P.? If you read on I think you’ll discover you do. “Existential” in this acronym means that the tendency to get stuck in loops is built right into human existence. People who suffer with obsessive-compulsive disorder struggle with a loop of thoughts that drives repetitious behaviors. Depression is characterized by rumination—looping over and over through what’s negative about one’s self, one’s life, and one’s past or future. People struggling with addiction can go through repeat cycles of abstinence, relapse, treatment, abstinence. Many people working on weight loss know too well the loop of dieting, regaining weight, giving up on weight loss, dieting. Domestic violence is characterized by a cycle (or loop) of power and control: tension building, abusive incident, period of calm, tension building … .
So it’s clear that many mental or behavioral health problems seem to have a looping quality. What about the rest of life? If we watch our inner world, we find that many of our thoughts loop through the mind over and over each day. Maybe thoughts like I hate my job or There’s too much on my plate or Why am I so anxious? Or maybe there are financial worries that spin around and around in your mind each day like clothes in a dryer.
Have you ever felt like the same points of tension come up again and again in a long-term relationship? John Gottman calls these perpetual issues, and every relationship beyond the early and easy part of love has them. Is there a difficult person in your life who makes your mind get stuck looping on a question such as: Why do you treat me this way? Why do you treat me this way? Why do you treat me this way? Are you prone to looping through the same self-judging thoughts day after day?
The more times we have been through mental, emotional, behavioral, or relational loops, the more prone those loops are to keep repeating. The loops in our inner life become more and more automated with repetition. Thoughts we’ve had thousands of times are easier to have again than new, creative thoughts. Reactive behaviors we’ve practiced for decades happen on autopilot. So what are we to do about our loops getting stronger with every repetition?
H.E.L.P. may be a condition that afflicts everyone on the planet, but why are we so prone to these loops? I suspect it’s because to be human is to live in loops. Each day is a loop of waking, living, and sleeping. Even while we sleep we loop every 90 minutes through the stages of sleep. We loop through hunger, eating, satiation, not-eating, hunger … each day is a 24-hour loop from sunrise to sunrise. Our weeks cycle from workdays to weekends and back to workdays. Every year is a loop of the seasons. Earth loops around the sun once every 365 days as the moon loops around Earth every month.
We live in a world of loops, so we experience our problems in loops. But is there help for H.E.L.P.? Here’s a metaphor for how we can help ourselves with our existential looping problem. Each concrete section of a typical sidewalk is separated by cracks—expansion joints intended to keep the concrete from cracking randomly. These cracks do not slow us down because they are so small. Imagine if we could deliberately widen those cracks. Even putting a one-inch gap between the sections of concrete would be enough to slow down anyone walking in high heels. A one-foot gap of puddled water between sections would cause most walkers to slow down. If the water gap between sections was increased to five feet, we would find it difficult to continue walking that pathway.
This is how we can stop traveling looping paths so often in our minds. Through practicing mindfulness many times per day, we can widen the gap between any outer or inner stimulus and our response to it. By creating gaps in a well-worn path we at least slow down the looping. If the gaps are large or frequent enough, we might stop taking that path altogether.
So when the diagnosis is H.E.L.P.—and sometimes for you and everyone else it is—the prescription is mindfulness practice and the optimal dose is many times per day every day for the rest of your life.