The way we pattern our thoughts has an enormous impact on our mental health and happiness. Thought patterns can be divided into two main categories. I’m going to call these recursive and input-output. A note to those who are math-phobic: I am going to use some math concepts to explain these thinking patterns. Stay with me; I promise I’ll make it simple:)
In math, we can look at functions (think of these like a rule or pattern) recursively by only considering the output. The rule ignores the input completely and only considers the starting output and the pattern to get from one term to the next. For example, in the table below, the rule would say, “Start with 12 and add 3 each time.” Recursive rules feed upon themselves, with each output based on the one before. They are like a chain, with each term linked to the one before and the one after.
In recursive thinking, your thought pattern is initiated by something: a memory, a trauma, a comment. Your thoughts then feed upon themselves with no regard for any external input. This type of thinking can lead to depression or anxiety as the brain simply continues the emotionally equivalent of “plus 3” with no end in sight. When you feel stuck emotionally, this is the type of pattern you are experiencing. When your reaction builds well beyond the initial stimulus, you are thinking recursively. When you feel sad or angry or anxious even in the face of calm, you are allowing the chain of thought to continue unbroken.
An input-output rule in math relates the output to the input. For example, in the (identical) table below, the input-output rule would say, “Multiply the input by 3 and add 9.” The output is dependent upon the input. Change the input, and you alter the output.
In input-output thinking, your reactions are based upon the external stimulus rather than your previous thoughts. You may be sad, but the emotion and associated thought patterns are due to your situation. You may respond in anger or feel fear but these are due to the inputs you experience. If you change the input, the associated thoughts will change with it.
Recursion is easy, effortless – which is why it is so valuable in computer programming. Its endless loops create the self-similarity needed for programs to run unaltered. Recursive thinking can be beneficial when it is positive in nature, but all too often it is the negative thoughts that pull us into its pattern.
Recursion has a weakness. Since each output is dependent upon the one before, if you break the chain, you break the pattern. If you catch yourself in this cycling thought pattern, find a way to interrupt the flow. Do something differently to break the cycle. Whatever you normally do or say, don’t. Recursion requires a hands-off approach to survive. So get your hands dirty and change it.
Then, consciously shift your thinking to input-output and deliberately choose positive inputs to encourage positive outputs. Surround yourself with nature, connect with friends, do something that feels good. Change the input and your thoughts will follow.