Why Are We Stuck on Repeat?

Sometimes we seem to keep doing the same things over and over again: experiencing the same feelings, thinking the same thoughts, circling in the same relationships. This can become a problem if you get stuck rehashing the same negative thoughts, the same anxieties, or the same disappointments with other people, with no sense of making anything better. And once you become stuck in these repetitions, it can feel like there is no way out.

By better understanding this process, we can learn how to break the cycle when we need to — and research has already revealed a lot about this topic. Neuroscientists have shown how our brains may in fact be hardwired for repetition, and the subject is gaining attention elsewhere in our culture.

NPR interviewed New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg for an episode of Fresh Air, and he had some interesting comments about the repeating nature of habits:

It turns out that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a ‘habit loop,’ which is a three-part process. First there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.

Then there’s the routine, which is the behavior itself. That’s what we think about when we think about habits.

The third step, he says, is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the ‘habit loop’ in the future.

Habit loops aren’t bad in and of themselves. In fact, they can be very adaptive, such as eventually learning the route to a new job so you don’t have to think carefully about navigating there every time you leave for work. And sometimes repetition is very enjoyable: for example, this TED-Ed animation explains why we love repetition in music.

However, whenever our brains go into automatic mode, it also means we are not as able to control or change our initial reactions. For certain areas of our lives, it is better for our overall well-being and happiness to take the control back.

How counseling can help you stop repeating


Individual Counseling — Over time you and your therapist can catch patterns as they happen. Simply recognizing those patterns can begin to help you.  Then the next step is finding a way to break those patterns, whether it’s by finally deciding to bring up a topic that you normally consciously avoid, or maybe through you and your therapist discussing in more detail how an assumption you made in reaction to something they said was actually incorrect. Situations and discussions like these can lead to you having a new experience to learn from, and topics to explore more deeply, instead of simply repeating the same stories from your past.

Group Counseling — Being in a counseling group enables you to recreate situations and repetitive feelings in surprising ways, in a real setting with a variety of people, and then offers the chance to better understand those emotions and reactions so that you can learn to recognize patterns specific to you. Often times your initial reactions to certain types of people or certain situations will feel like repeats from your past. Group allows you the opportunity to explore this further, helping you to see what you need to do for yourself as well as how others can adjust so that you can begin to break any negative relationship patterns.

Research is now showing that these types of new experiences in counseling can actually lead to physical changes in the brain itself (for more on this, see here and here, for example). What we understand about our brains now is that we can still create new habit loops to allow ourselves to feel, act, and be differently in relationships. My view of this is that these new experiences in counseling serve as a reference for your relationships in general. And then of course, we can take advantage of our brain’s fondness for habits by creating new habit loops that allow ourselves to feel, act, and be differently in relationships.

(For further reading on how relationships impact our brains, this blog post by Dr. Athena Staik on neuroscience and thinking patterns and this piece at BrainHQ on neuroscience and love are great places to start).

Understanding the science behind why breaking patterns can be such a challenge helps us to understand how best to make positive changes happen. It can also help you to maintain hope when you do try to tackle a difficult change, because it serves as a reminder that change is typically not going to be automatic or fast. It requires effort and a long honest look at yourself to understand your own triggers, reactions, and habit loops.

But most important, this knowledge helps us see that change is possible. Because even though our brains are suckers for repetition, this shows that they are also wondrously adaptable and ready to learn.