Are you stuck in a vicious circle?

Sad woman in forest.
Negative thoughts can drive negative feelings and behaviours.

It’s much easier for good things to happen when life is going well. When life is good, you’re more optimistic, more confident, more open to trying new things. Similarly, it’s much easier for bad things to happen when things are bad already. When you’re down, you’re more pessimistic, less confident, less motivated, less open to actions that might ease your plight.


That is, a vicious circle can develop. The message of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is that thoughts, feelings and behaviours interlink and influence each other. Negative thinking (“it’s hopeless, there’s no point”) drives negative feelings (sadness, hopelessness). These negative feelings drive negative behaviours (inactivity, staying in bed late, not meeting friends, etc). Negative behaviours then reinforce the initial negative thought, seemingly confirming that things are hopeless, that you’re useless, and so on.


The above scenario is common with depression, but the concept of a vicious circle is one I would advise everybody – depressed or not – to reflect upon. It tends to be at the heart of most emotional problems.


With low self-esteem, for example, self-critical thoughts make you feel undeserving and under-confident, which drive counterproductive behaviours (isolating yourself, neglecting your hobbies because you feel undeserving, avoiding new challenges for fear you won’t do well). The vicious cycle continues, perpetuating your problems and keeping you stuck.


If your relationship is going through a tough patch, it’s common for a vicious cycle of conflict to develop. Your thoughts towards your partner are likely to be more harsh, more critical, more unforgiving. You’re more likely to jump to negative conclusions, more likely to see what they haven’t done and not what they have done. This drives negative emotions (anger, resentment), which drives negative behaviours (critical comments, withdrawal of affection, etc), which only keeps the negative cycle turning.



People running by Brooklyn Bridge.
Do an opposite action: new behaviours can help break you out of a vicious cycle.

With anxiety, fearful thinking (“what if XYZ goes wrong, how will I cope?”) leads to increased feelings of anxiety (butterflies in the stomach, feelings of dread and apprehension). This drives fearful behaviours (avoiding a dreaded event, using alcohol to cope socially, increased scanning for danger, etc) which reinforce the negative thinking, confirming to the brain that the world is dangerous, that you cannot cope, that you are not good enough, and so on.


This vicious circle plays a crucial part in maintaining all forms of anxiety.


With panic disorder, your terror at the thought of having a panic attack and your conviction that the discomfort is unbearable, causes you to avoid places or situations where panic attacks have occurred in the past. If a situation cannot be avoided, you use safety behaviours (having an escape plan and checking for exits, monitoring for physical feelings of anxiety, avoiding caffeine, keeping anti-anxiety medication with you “just in case”) to manage your nerves, but this only reinforces the message that the situation is dangerous and that anxiety is unbearable as opposed to uncomfortable.


With social anxiety, biased and safety-first thinking drives negative feelings and a multitude of those aforementioned safety behaviours that again perpetuate the initial thinking. Invariably, you end up ‘putting out fires with gasoline’, as anxiety expert Dr Dave Carbonell puts it.


With most problems, it’s easy to get sucked into patterns of behaviour that keep the problem going. In CBT, we call these maintenance processes – that is, we largely focus on the factors that keep a problem going, as opposed to its origins. Generally, a good rule of thumb is to do an opposite action – for example, going for a walk or meeting a friend even though you’re down and tempted to lie down in front of the TV; resisting the urge to lash out even though you’re feeling angry; resisting the urge to run away and avoid anxiety-producing situations, and so on.


Whatever your situation, try to get used to using this simple CBT model in your daily life. What was I thinking just there? How did those thoughts make me feel? How did I respond to those feelings? Did they shape my behaviour? Was my behaviour helpful – or unhelpful?


In life, things can snowball and make a bad situation worse, but the reverse is also true – through effort and awareness, you can turn that unhelpful, vicious cycle into a helpful, virtuous cycle.


(First published in Southern Star on 13/02/2020).