From Vicious Cycle to Adaptive Spiral

When it comes to unhealthy, ingrained patterns, therapists often use the term “vicious cycle.” Something happens that causes something else, which leads to a downward slide. When we think of personal growth, we usually refer to growth as a straight line. A spiral, however, is a new way for you to think about growth, especially when it comes to overcoming vicious cycles. Since we talk about a pattern as being a “vicious cycle,” why not look at the antidote as being an adaptive spiral?

A vicious cycle starts when certain actions and perceptions that got you through the minefields of childhood often remain unchecked and lock you into unhealthy patterns as an adult. The Adaptive Spiral, an idea which developed organically through my therapy practice, is one remedy to patterns that developed early on in childhood as a way to cope with certain situations but become maladaptive as adults.

Elements of the Adaptive Spiral

Using the metaphor of a spiral helps to explain why some “been-there-done-that” issues come back again in therapy (and in life), but at a different level of learning or with a new perceptive. Growth along the spiral includes pitfalls and steps forward as well as back, in addition to visiting the same places but at new levels of understanding. Let’s look at the six elements of the adaptive spiral: expanding your awareness, accepting responsibility, challenging your perception, strength, identification, and learning to trust.

The first element of the spiral is Expanding your Awareness. As a therapy consumer, you already have a high level of awareness, which is essential for overcoming sabotaging patterns. Your awareness comes form the reflection goes with the territory of being “different” or not fitting in.

The first level of awareness is to know that you are in a pattern (a vicious cycle). The next level is to acknowledge that you play a part in the pattern and are therefore, you can change it. The third level of awareness is to recognize that these patterns serve a purpose, which is usually unconscious. The final component is to recognize you may have to change the means to these unconscious goals or actually change the goals themselves in order to change the pattern.

The second element of the adaptive spiral is Accepting Responsibility. You must first be willing to take an inward look in as non-defensive a manner as possible. Accepting responsibility also means making decisions about examining your motivations, choices, and what you wish to change. Growth stems from accepting that there are new ways of being and can take healthy risks to push the envelope out of your comfort zones.

The third element of the spiral is Challenging your Perception, which includes how you view yourself in relation to others and the belief system which you developed early on in life. It includes thoughts, both automatic and deliberate, as well as attitudes. Even your mood and how you react to others relate to perception. While you're in therapy, take the time to examine your beliefs that you have developed about you, other people in general, friends, and people in authority. Where did those beliefs come from? How do they serve you?

The fourth element, Strength, includes the ability to have courage to accept your imperfections, look at your life honestly, and change. Perseverance, which is a type of strength, means you know that any change takes time. It takes courage to accept your strengths. As an individual, you have had to go through some painful times. Remember what it took to get through those times as you get in touch with the strength you already have to embark on changing long-standing patterns.

The fifth component is Identification, which refers to realizing you are not the only one who has these patterns. Having vicious cycles makes you human, and you gain courage as you accept this. Use this knowledge to feel more connected to other people. Isolation is a factor in vicious cycles, of which depression can be one. Connecting to others counteracts isolation.

Learning to Trust is the sixth element. It means being able to trust yourself, others, and your emotional experience. Your outlook has a unique “logic” that stems from prior experiences which are later confirmed. If it includes a lack of faith in you or trust in others, take time to examine how much of your perception is amenable to change.

Regarding Action, the final element of the spiral, it has been my experience that long-lasting change comes in small increments. A gung-ho approach to anything (a prime example is diets) is usually defeating from the start and is part of a vicious cycle. The bridge from knowing to doing is the hardest to cross, but once the other elements are in place, your journey along the spiral becomes easier to manage.

Making the Change

You may need the assistance of a place where you can go to feel safe to make changes you want to make. These places include support groups, books, a therapist, and good, honest friends. Whichever resources you utilize in your self-examination, remember it can be a scary, but potentially enriching experience to overcome defeating actions as you find new ways of living.