What is Mental Looping? Really?
What is Mental Looping – Really?
Have you ever had a song or commercial jingle stuck in your head?
Has your mind ever bounced between catastrophe and blame?
Have you ever been diagnosed with Anxiety, Depression or PTSD?
Modern life has many new influences and challenges that most of us are just getting used to. We can get an answer to a question or a confirmation of our opinions in seconds. If we do not feel like engaging a specific activity we can scroll on a screen for as long as we want. Nothing will actually change, but the present moment is filled with something familiar – and addictive…
I am not going to go on a tirade about what people should or shouldn’t do, or design. I just wanted you to reflect on the experience of scrolling – which is almost the same as mental looping.
What is it like to live in your skin?
How are your patience and focus?
What I would like to share in this article is what is instinctually happening inside your mind, and what to do about it when you are looping.
I will have to get a bit technical at first, but these new ideas are very useful to understand. My hope is that you will find some perspective and resources, and maybe even some humor about this part of everyone’s life.
There is a fundamental aspect of being a conscious animal that literally gets you around. It is called your Orienting Reflex, and its job is to point your attention towards any potential threat or any novel experience. It is like a flashlight. The challenge that many people face is the scary fact that the flashlight is in the hands of your primate instincts.
The celebrated and hilarious cartoon character Homer Simpson is almost a perfect mirror of that part of all of us. We are all capable of following every compulsion that comes to mind. We are all also capable of disconnecting from reality and daydreaming, looping, or scrolling when we feel stressed, bored, or lonely.
People who practice Meditation, Qi Gong, Yoga, and Prayer have a big advantage with their Orienting Reflex. Your flashlight is basically your attention, and your attention has many flavors. Your specific flavor of attention at any given moment is determined by your stress and sex hormones, your neurotransmitters and your ability to feel patient and focused. That is a lot of possible flavors!
How do patience and focus feel in your body – right now?
That is a trick question! I just tricked you into pointing your Orienting Reflex towards and into your emotional and somatic self. Made your look!
OK. So, humans have an instinctually driven flashlight that basically controls your attention. Training your Orienting Reflex is very much like training a puppy. You either chase it around or teach it to love to defer to your choices.
Yep, I said Love – with a Capital L.
Imagine you are at the dog park…
We can all tell the difference between a good human/wild animal relationship or a bad human/wild animal relationship.
Your Orienting Reflex learns the fastest when you are getting your needs met, and even better when you get enough play. Your attention and instincts will happily walk beside you if you both get and give enough connection and love. Be patient with this.
There is another system in your mind called Meta-Cognition.
Imagine an old castle with a big modern and intense searchlight that constantly checks on all of the buildings and stables, wealthy people, poor people, warriors, and angry priests. There are many parts of a modern personality, and each part is similar to a character in a medieval castle. The Librarian is your memory and the prince and princess make your relationships like adventures.
Meta-Cognition constantly surveys your thoughts, feelings, memories, embodiment patterns, physical pain, emotional pain, and chronic illness status (inflammation). Your searchlight has to prioritize your list of ‘problems to solve’ every twenty minutes on a good day. If you are stressed it will happen much faster. Sound familiar?
This part of your mind loves lists. Things to do, things you love, things you judge, things you are critical about yourself, and your proverbial bucket list of amazing experiences to create with your life ASAP.
This is a helpful adaptation if you have a lot happening in the short term. In the long term, the relentless and repetitive nature of this experience can drive many of us to find any way to sedate the looping mind.
If your Orienting Reflex is a puppy, then give it something to chew on that feeds it keeps it from gnawing at your peace of mind. Your puppy is not that smart and has no business offering you advice on what to do with your life or what to do with the space of your mind. If you cannot find healthy ways to calm your mind and soothe your instinctual puppy mind, it will gradually take over your experience of Meta-Cognition.
Now you are officially LOOPING!
Your mind becomes a factory of good and bad lists. Most of us experience a 10:1 ratio of bad-to-good list looping, BTW.
The Care and feeding of a Looping Mind.
Each of us has an individually set threshold to pain, fatigue, chronic illness, and constant distress. This threshold is determined by your sensitivity and resourcefulness. There are no rules, and it is never going to be about what is fair!
If you are Looping, you are the only one who can reorient your experience. You can have a drink, or a toke, or a pill, or you can go deeper within your actual present experience. I recommend starting with your embodied experience. Asking a puppy why it wants a drink is probably going to go very badly. If you take it for a walk or start rubbing its belly, things will almost always go well.
You and I are instinctual animals. We need to feel at home in our bodies before we are likely to be able to settle our thoughts and feelings. This is why I focus on Somatic Mindfulness in my practice.
Mental Looping is almost always driven by embodied distress. Go for a walk, go to the Gym, dance around your house, try a Yoga or Qi Gong class, get a massage or some acupuncture, and then explore what meditation is all about.
After you have come back to yourself, it is time to begin training your attention, your Orienting Reflex and honoring that Meta-cognition will always shine a light on where your mind is stuck.
What are You Curious About?
If your mind seems stuck in a rut, try something new. We scroll to see something new, or something to confirm our inner experience.
Life is meant to be an adventure. What horizons are calling you in your life? Your deepest and most authentic curiosity is your Superpower. If you are going to think about a list, start with what calls your Soul to action.
Are you just too tired to focus?
All of that may sound good, but it takes some time and energy to shift an instinctually driven habit. If you are feeling too burned out to deal with your puppy right now, get some rest. Take a hot bath, listen to some soothing music, or sit down with a trusted friend and have a good cry.
This is a hard truth, but many of my patients who feel too tired to get into the’deep stuff’ are actually tired of holding back a deeper sense of emotional turmoil. Sometimes the looping forces old emotions to come up, and sometimes it is the old traumas and wounds that are chasing your puppy into a corner.
If Chinese Medicine has a deep truth it is to let go and let in. We all need to let the past live in the past. Most of us also need to find enough connection and trust to let our needs be real and be met. If you are too tired to focus on a Self-Care practice, the let those close to you take care of you for a while.
That is also an instinct!
Honestly? Get Bored. I am not joking. Stimulation addiction is making us all crazy.
Let your puppy get bored too… There is a difference between what your instincts NEED and what your Orienting Reflex believes is saving your life.
Then dance and play with your puppy. Your attention is your life.
Please comment on this article and let me know what resources you would like to know more about.