The “Sticky Neural Loop”

Brought to you by CHYP’s Parenting Blog

August 30th, 2021

By: Lonnie Zeltzer, MD

What is a “sticky neural loop?” For some people, a thought, an emotion, or a physical feeling can get “stuck” in their mind.

When this happens, a new connection of areas of the brain form, like a new “neural highway.” Our mind gets stuck in that highway like cars getting stuck on a crowded freeway. Nothing can move. And this new neural highway might pass near memory areas of the brain that “feed more cars” into that already clogged highway.

Getting “Stuck.”

Do you have times where the same thought seems to get “stuck” in your head? You can’t get it out of your mind and you then continue to focus on that thought.

As you focus on it, the emotions attached to the thought get stronger. It starts taking over your mind all day to the exclusion of other thoughts. As you have that thought, you notice your muscles tighten, your head may begin to hurt, and you begin to feel weak and maybe even shaky or dizzy.

You might be a generally anxious person who tends to worry about yourself and others. For example, a bad experience may be stored in your memory. A new similar upcoming experience might remind you of that bad prior experience, and you begin to form a sticky neural loop worrying about the new upcoming experience. Having been in a car accident and then considering driving again might be an example of something that triggers this anticipated fear.

Or your son is going back to school after the summer, or after missing a lot of school because of chronic pain. You may worry about his getting COVID, having trouble socializing, having difficult teachers, etc. Pretty soon those thoughts can’t turn off and it’s hard to function because all you can do is worry about your son.

Physical feelings may also create a “sticky neural loop.” For example, you’re trying to sleep, but you notice your stomach begins to hurt. Your attention turns to your stomach and gets “stuck” there. As you focus on your stomach, the pain gets worse, you worry whether it’s getting worse, and you can’t sleep. Then you begin worrying about your lack of sleep and whether you will be able to perform the next day.

Another example, to use the same symptom, happens in the morning with your teen with chronic pain. She gets up to go to school and notices her stomach hurts. She begins to worry if her stomach will get worse at school and she tells you that the bathrooms at school are yucky.  Her pain gets worse and she worries that she won’t be able to pay attention at school or that she will be sent home from school because of stomach pain.

As she continues to think about this possible predicament at school, her stomach begins to hurt more and more until it becomes hard to get her attention off her stomach pain. As that happens, she begins to feel nauseated, her head hurts, her body feels weak, and she begins to worry that she can’t make it to school. She ends up staying in bed for the rest of the day.

Getting “Unstuck.”

How to cope with a brain that easily forms a “sticky neural loop”?  There are several good strategies that are helpful for your teen — and you — to climb out of these neural loops.

  • Engage in an enjoyable activity that takes full attention. Reading, drawing, cooking, etc. Creative arts occupy different parts of your mind than does the sticky neural loop.
  • Make contact with a friend and get together to talk over coffee or tea. Social support is a good buffer from the bodily effects of a negative sticky neural loop.
  • Do some exercise. Swim, go for a walk, ride a bike, do strength-building exercises at home with weights. Be sure to stretch both before and after exercising.
  • Take time to focus on breathing. There are a variety of breathing strategies that calm, and even energize, the body. Look them up online and practice them.
  • Learn about yoga online. Yoga allows the mind to focus on the body: position, balance, and alignment. There are both restorative poses and energizing poses.
  • Check out mindfulness apps. You and your teen can learn how to calm yourselves by noticing your thoughts and letting them go, while focusing on your breathing, or saying a word (or mantra) in your mind repeatedly.

You will observe that your mind — like a popcorn machine of random thoughts — begins to slow down so that you can more intensely perceive the colors and smells and sounds around you. When you’re in this state, go for a mindful walk, which is walking slowly while becoming aware of everything around you. Have a meal: mindful eating involves noticing the arrangement of the food on your plate, the colors and textures of the food, the smells and tastes of the food, etc.

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Neural loops form when we learn new things.  A “smart brain” may form neural loops easily since learning may come easily.

However, when neural loops become “stuck” they have effects on our body, thoughts, and emotions that can get us into trouble.  Learning about and recognizing when you have formed a sticky neural loop that is unhealthy allows you to engage in various strategies to become “unstuck”.


Lonnie Zeltzer, M.D., is a Distinguished Research Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Immediate Past-Director of the UCLA Pediatric Pain and Palliative Care Program. She is a co-author on the Institute of Medicine report on Transforming Pain in America and is a member of the national steering committee assigned to provide directions for pain research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  She has received, among other awards, a Mayday Pain and Policy Fellowship and the 2005 Jeffrey Lawson Award for Advocacy in Children’s Pain Relief from the American Pain Society (APS).  Her UCLA integrative pediatric pain program received a 2009 Clinical Centers of Excellence in Pain Management Award from APS and a 2012 award from the Southern California Cancer Pain Initiative.  She is active in advocacy for pain care and research. She was an invited member of the Institute of Medicine National Expert Panel on pain in American and was a co-author of the IOM publication on the committee findings in 2011. She was an invited member of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Special Advisor on The State of Opioids in America. She is also an invited member of the FDA Committee on Analgesia, Anesthesia, and Addiction, where new pain-related drugs are given FDA approval or not, as well as an invited member of the Expert Advisory Committee on Hemoglobinopathies as a pain expert for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at NIH.  She is also on an expert panel for the NIH on a national study on a mind-body intervention for teens with fibromyalgia. She is also a member of the national Autism Think Tank as a pain expert in autism. Her research includes yoga, mindfulness, hypnotherapy, and other self-help interventions, including mobile technologies, to help children and adolescents who have chronic pain, as well as understanding biopsychosocial pain mechanisms in irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, sickle cell disease, headaches, dysmenorrhea, and other conditions. She has over 350 research publications on childhood pain and complementary therapies, has written more than 80 chapters, and published her first book for parents on chronic pain in childhood (HarperCollins, 2005) and her second book for parents on chronic pain in children and young adults (Shilysca Press, 2016).