Anxious thoughts? Here's how to stop the mental feedback loop.
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
Do you ever find yourself stuck in the same worried thoughts, trying desperately to come to a resolution, but finding that you just keep spinning around in your head? I call this a mental feedback loop.
What’s happening is that our anxious thoughts create anxious feelings in our bodies. And then our anxious feelings fuel our anxious thoughts even more, creating an endless feedback loop between our thoughts and feelings in our body. At some point it can feel like you’re stuck inside a black hole and can’t find your way out. Does this sound familiar?
The problem with mental feedback loops is that we usually try to think our way out of them. But once we’re caught in a feedback loop, our thoughts are colored by the underlying anxious feelings, and, therefore, we can’t think clearly anymore. We keep trying to come up with an answer that will make us feel better, but it doesn’t work. So, what can we do?
Dropping the thoughts
We can stop trying to avoid how we feel. We may not realize it, but those repetitive thoughts are an attempt to resolve the underlying feeling of anxiety, to make the feeling go away. But once you’re caught in a mental feedback loop, you can’t talk yourself out of feeling anxious, otherwise you would have done so already. Instead, trying to think your way out of the feeling has only made it worse and created a sense of desperation. But, if you “drop the thoughts” and allow yourself to simply feel the sensations of anxiety instead, then the feedback loop is instantly broken.
“Dropping the thoughts” means asking your brain to let go of thinking for a moment and instead bringing your attention to what you feel in your body. Notice what sensations you feel that tell you that you’re anxious. Do you feel tightness in your chest, buzzing, constriction? Often there is a sense of relief simply from allowing ourselves to feel the feelings of anxiety that we’ve been trying to avoid. Often the feeling fades on its own if we simply let ourselves feel it.
Focus Outside of Yourself
Sometimes the feeling doesn’t fade. In this case, you can take a deep breath and see if you can notice the space around the difficult sensations. Where do you feel relaxed in your body, or at least neutral? You can also bring your attention to something outside of yourself. Notice what you see around you, what the air feels like on your skin, what you smell, etc. This is a great tool because mental feedback loops suck all our attention inside, creating that sense of being stuck inside a black hole. If we can bring our attention to something outside of ourselves, then we can start to come out of our internal spiral.
Befriend Your Thoughts & Your Body
Your thoughts are important, and it may be helpful to tell your brain that you’re going to come back to the thoughts after you’ve had a chance to calm down. If anxious thoughts keep coming into your mind as you try to bring your attention to your sensations, you can simply notice them and tell your brain that you’ll revisit your thoughts in a minute. Then gently bring your attention back to the feelings in your body or to your environment. And when you’re ready, you can revisit the issue at hand and see if you can approach it with a little more perspective.
It’s important to note that these mental feedback loops can happen with any difficult emotion, not just anxiety. I focused on anxiety in this post because I see anxiety feedback loops the most. Mental feedback loops are also common with anger, frustration, and self-loathing, as well as any other difficult emotions that we avoid. The process is the same with any emotion that sucks you into a mental feedback loop.
And just remember that, as with everything, these skills take practice. Every time we make a different choice, we start to create a new habit. And over time, these habits become second nature. Even 30 seconds of breaking the mental feedback loop by noticing how you feel in your body will help shift your patterns over time.