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How to Stop the Vicious Cycle – CBT and Dysfunctional Behaviour

One of the key focuses in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is trying to recognise and identify the types of thoughts, feelings and behaviours you are having that are stopping you from feeling good about yourself and your life.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Dysfunctional Behaviour Analysis

When you have a negative thought or feeling, or act out a negative behaviour, it often creates a pattern of dysfunctional behaviour which keeps your pessimistic mood going in a kind of vicious cycle or ‘loop’. These cycles are called ‘maintaining processes’ by therapists.

Trying to identify these cycles of dysfunctional behaviour is a key part of your first couple of CBT therapy sessions, where you and your cognitive therapist will do a behavioural analysis and together recognise your patterns so you can then intercept and change them.

Let’s look at the most common kinds of ‘maintaining processes’ that CBT counselling identifies.

The 7 Most Common Dysfunctional Behaviour Loops

1. Safety Behaviours

Dysfunctional BehaviourSafety behaviours occur when you want to protect yourself from something you fear. They are often related to anxiety. If you suffer social anxiety, examples of this type of behaviour include agreeing with everything the other person says, speaking very quietly, sticking to ‘safe’ conversations, tensing up to control shaking and using alcohol and drugs to increase confidence.

While it is understandable to try and cope with unpleasant feelings of anxiety, these behaviours can actually end up prolonging feelings of anxiety. This is because the actual problem remains unresolved and is allowed to continue. For instance, although you managed to feel less anxious the last time you had to attend a party because you got tipsy on alcohol, you are still going to have anxiety the next time you have have a social event to go to.

2. Escape/Avoidance

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It’s very common when you are feeling anxious to want to run away from the situation that is making you feel tense. This is why if you suffer social anxiety you might tend to avoid social situations entirely, choosing to be on your own and withdraw. Or you may go out but avoid eye contact, stand on the edge of a group, and hope no one will talk to you. Like other safety behaviours, avoidance and escape can actually make your anxiety worse in the long run, because they undermine your confidence and prevent you from discovering if your fears are founded on reality or are just extreme and unhelpful.

3. Reduction in Activity

This is the most common maintaining process when it comes to depression. Often when you are depressed you suffer from low mood, negative thoughts and physical symptoms such as a reduction in energy. This all leads to giving up doing activities that usually give you feelings of pleasure and achievement. You might find yourself instead just doing the bare minimum of activity required to get by.

Unfortunately, this can just make you feel even more demoralised, as you are disconnecting yourself from what usually gives you joy. Then there is the way it reduces your access to support and encouragement from the friends you might have done those activities with, and increases the amount of time you have available to think negative thoughts. It can become a vicious cycle of more and more reductions in activity until even necessary actions like washing, cooking, or leaving the house become unthinkable.

4. Catastrophic Misinterpretation

behaviour analysisIf you suffer from anxiety about your health and/or OCD you might be prone to this dysfunctional behaviour process, where you misinterpret bodily sensations as evidence of more serious physical and psychological illness. Anxiety symptoms such as increased heart rate, dizziness, palpitations (heart flutters), and shortness of breath are interpreted as more serious threats such as heart attacks, strokes or that you are about to “go mad”.

The result of thinking such thoughts is that often more anxiety is generated and the symptoms worsen, which appears to confirm the imminent threat to your wellbeing.

5. Scanning/Hyper-vigilance

This is another common behavioural loop if you suffer health anxiety, and also occurs with sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s occurs when you are worried you could have a serious illness and often scan or are hyper-vigilant to symptoms which you believe confirms you have the illness. This process makes you more sensitive to picking up on perfectly normal bodily symptoms and interpreting them as confirmation of illness. This then increases your anxieties and worries which leads to further scanning and checking, and the vicious cycle is created.

6. Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

If you possess negative beliefs about others’ attitudes towards you, you may very well then elicit reactions from those people which appear to confirm your original negative belief. For example, the expectation that others will be aggressive and hostile towards you may mean that you walk around with quite defensive behaviour, which actually does elicit aggression from others and confirms your belief that others are aggressive towards you.

cognitive behavioral theory7. Perfectionism

The perfectionism loop is a common one if you suffer from low self-esteem and confidence. You set yourself almost impossible high standards in order to prove your capabilities and worth. “If I’m perfect, then I can’t be useless”. But by setting such abnormally high standards you can almost never achieve, you instead reinforce that you are “useless” and “not worthy”. Your low self-esteem is maintained and even reinforced.

Recognise Any of these Examples of Behaviours?

Remember, acknowledgement is key. If you recognise any of these types of thoughts or examples of behaviours in yourself, you have made an important first step in trying to break your cycle of dysfunctional behaviour. Try monitoring when and how often you think such thoughts or behave in such a way, and notice in what situations the cycles occur. By identifying when you are engaging in a loop, you can begin to change the process of events and more importantly gain back the control of how you think and behave.

Do you have questions about CBT? Or not sure you are in a loop of dysfunctional behaviour and want to ask a question? Use the comment box below. We love hearing from you.


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Blog Topics: Cognitive Therapy, Theory of Therapy & Training

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    Dr. Sheri Jacobson


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