Repetition of Unhealthy Patterns: How to Stop the Hamster Wheel

By Christina Raccuia

Humans seek comfort in the familiar. Freud called this repetition compulsion, which he famously defined as “the desire to return to an earlier state of things.”

This takes form in simple tasks; perhaps you watch your favorite movie over and over, or choose the same entrée at your favorite restaurant. However, more harmful behaviors include repeatedly dating people who might emotionally or physically abuse you; or using drugs when overcome with negative thoughts.

But there may be a different reason for this behavior.

Many of us develop patterns over the years, whether positive or negative, that become ingrained. We each create a subjective world for ourselves and discover what works for us. In times of stress, worry, anger, or other emotional highs, we repeat what is familiar and what feels “safe”. This creates rumination of thoughts as well as negative patterns in reactions and behaviors.

As an example, someone who struggles with insecurities and jealousy will find that when his significant other does not return a call or text immediately, his mind begins to wander to negative and faulty thoughts. The thoughts begin to accumulate and emotionally overwhelm the person, which leads to unjustified accusations and unintentional harm to the relationship.

The person has created a pattern over years that becomes familiar to him, and even though he might not want to react in this way, it comes naturally. To react differently, albeit more positively, would feel foreign and unfamiliar. When someone has done something the same way for years, she will continue to do so, even if it causes harm for both herself and others.

People also revert to earlier states if the behavior is in any way rewarding, or if it confirms negative self-beliefs. For someone who inflicts self-harm in a time of emotional distress, that behavior momentarily relieves the pain even if later on the individual feels shame over it. In the example of a person who continuously enters abusive relationships, we might find that he or she is highly insecure and does not believe that he or she is worthy of being cared for. This person may seek out people who induce anxiety in them, which in turn will make them question themselves, and eventually lead them to find something wrong with themselves in order to feed their negative self-image.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can provide effective treatment routes for reshaping thought patterns that lead to maladaptive behaviors. This type of therapeutic approach focuses on bringing awareness to irrational beliefs, cognitive distortions, and negative thought tracks.

What are cognitive distortions and why do so many people have them? Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.

For instance, a person might tell himself or herself, “I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try.” This is an example of “black or white” (or polarized) thinking. The person is only seeing things in absolutes—that if they fail at one thing, they must fail at all things. If they added, “I must be a complete loser and failure” to their thinking, that would also be an example of overgeneralization—taking a failure at one specific task and generalizing it to reflect on their very self and identity.

Cognitive distortions are at the core of what several CBT and other kinds of therapists try to help a person learn to change in psychotherapy. By learning to correctly identify this kind of “stinkin’ thinkin’,” a person can then answer the negative thinking back, and refute it. By refuting the negative thinking over and over again, it will slowly diminish over time and automatically be replaced by more rational, balanced thinking.

By working on different techniques, one can learn how to recognize when thoughts or actions are more harmful than beneficial, and how to stop them from occurring. The brain’s cognitive processes will be rewired and retrained to develop new patterns that are productive, rational, and positive, which will ultimately lead to more adaptive behaviors and choices.

It takes years for people to develop maladaptive patterns, habits, and repetitive choices, and it may also take years to reshape them into something that becomes worth revisiting. However, the good news is that the brain has the ability to reverse unhealthy patterns to more healthy and productive ones.

Christina Winholt Raccuia is a Psychotherapist with offices at 23A West 10th Street.

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