Self Feeding Cycles

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    One of natures most dramatic examples of self feeding cycles in nature is the Hurricane.  Self feeding cycles also occur in the mind and in the interactions of people and social groups.  Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel (1998) described a cycle of hatred that he was experiencing and Michael Freund wrote an article "The Cycle of Absurdity" to describe the politics of the Middle East.  The cycle of violence is a term commonly used to explain ongoing conflicts.  Although most conflicts contain a cycle of violence to say that this is the sole cause of the conflict is usually an oversimplification.  Often a cycle of appeasement feeds the cycle of violence.   How this occurs is discussed on the Middle East Appeasement Cycle web page.  In order to understand cycles in society it is helpful to examine the causes of cycles in nature such as tornadoes and hurricanes. 

    According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a tropical cyclone is likely to occur whenever several of the following prerequisites occur simultaneously:

  1. Latitude sufficiently high for the Coriolis force to be appreciable.
  2. A warm-water surface (at least 27 C) of sufficient area to supply the overlying air with large amounts of vapour; in some cases a cyclone may form over water at 23 or 24 C if much colder air is present at higher altitude.
  3. Pronounced instability in the air column or relatively low pressure at the surface and often an
    anticyclone aloft.
  4. Little or no vertical wind shear (shearing effect
    produced by the movement of one air mass past another).

    The general instability and enormous vapour load make the air most susceptible to any triggering factor and especially to convergence due to external wind flow. Convection may rapidly become tumultuous.  With a strengthening of convection, the centripetal wind flow gains speed; soon the angular velocity component of the Coriolis force becomes sufficient to impart a definite cyclonic curvature to the air flow, and a cyclone becomes established. The input of warm, very moist air continues. Large-scale condensation of moisture occurs during the ascent, and enormous amounts of previously latent energy are released. This energy results in stronger winds, which in turn lead to the intake and uplift of larger amounts of humid air, with a further release of energy thus creating a self feeding cycle.  Cyclones can spawn other cyclones for example hurricanes can spawn tornadoes.  Latent heat is the main source of energy in a tropical cyclone. Thus, a rapid inflow of dry air can reduce the cyclone to a much slower tropical depression. 

    In summary:

  1. Favorable conditions make the cycle more likely to form.
  2. A mechanism for the cycle to feed itself and grow stronger must exist. 
  3. A cycle can be slowed down if one of the sources of its energy is removed.
  4. Cycles can spawn other cycles.

    Spawned cycles may continue and gain force after the conditions that created the original cycle are long gone.  A cycle of violence can continue long after the original conflict that started it is over.  A soldier who comes back from traumatic experiences of a war can suffer from problems long after the war is over.  Victims of abuse who are no longer abused can still suffer from self feeding cycles.

   A diagram of an emotional vicious cycle is shown below.   Components of the cycle are hyperlinks to other cycles with which they are connected.   A list of cycles is also available.  These cycles include cycles that happen in almost everyone as well as cycles that can occur in the mentally ill.

Person A believes Person B is hostile


Person A Becomes hostile to Person B

Person B takes action against Person A

images/acycle.gif (14544 bytes) Hostility

Person A takes action against Person B

Person B becomes hostile to Person A


Person B believes Person A is hostile

   Once a cycle is self feeding it is actually creating the conditions that feed itself.  A cyclone that causes humid air to rise is creating conditions which will feed itself.  The implications of this phenomenon for the understanding and treatment of cyclical emotional problems are very important.  Lets make up a hypothetical situation of Jim a little boy who's upset because he lost his teddy bear.  Jim might take that out on the kids at school.   The kids might react in a hostile way and Jim might get more upset.  Jim might then take that out on the kids at school and a vicious cycle would be created.  If a therapist came along and tried to treat Jim for being upset the first thing they are likely to do is to try and find out the reason Jim is upset. If they are talented therapists they might be able to trace his being upset to his loss of the teddy bear.   One solution they might come up with would be to give him back his teddy bear and that might make him less upset.  However, it might not solve his problem because now he has a lot of hostile kids at school who he is upset with.  In other words, after a while the original cause is not the only cause.  If the cycle continues after he has the teddy bear than what has happened is a cycle was spawned that exists independently of the original conditions that created it. 

   One way cycles can be created is when the defense one uses to deal with a problem actually exacerbates the problem.  Defenses that can cause cycles are described on another page on this web site.

    I don't think it's likely that something as minor as losing a teddy bear would spawn a cycle or certainly I don't think it would spawn a cycle that would last long.  I am just using that as an example to explain concepts.  There must be something that dampens cycles.  Otherwise everyone would be caught in escalating emotional cycles.  In nature the most powerful hurricanes and cyclones and tornadoes eventually dissipate.  Even though as they grow they become more self feeding eventually they reach a state where they lose power.  Hurricanes dissipate when the conditions that feed them disappear.  In the case of people loss of the conditions that feed the cycles would contribute to their dissipation but there are other factors as well.  Another factor might be that when a problem becomes serious enough people start to devoting more energy to solving it.

    Cognitive therapy is based on the correct idea that incorrect beliefs and errors in reasoning can lead to depression and anxiety.  If we view this from the point of view of cycles the question arises, is the emotional distress caused by false beliefs, capable of feeding the creation of false beliefs?  For example could a paranoid state of mind lead to the creation of false beliefs that cause paranoia?  This concept is illustrated in the belief/emotional state cycle diagram.

    If the answer to the above questions is yes than it seems reasonable that treatment should consist of both correcting the incorrect beliefs and addressing the emotional causes of those incorrect beliefs. 

    Biological psychiatry is based on the premise that psychiatric problems result from physiological abnormalities such as neurotransmitter imbalances.  Can emotional distress create hormonal imbalances?   If so there may be a physiological vicious cycle which should be treated both at the chemical and at the psychological level.  What about serious mental illness?  Plenty of people have talked and argued and cojoled and reasoned with mentally ill relatives only to find that they have made no headway in changing the beliefs of those relatives.  Then their relatives get drug treatment and improve.  My conclusion from the cycle model is that talk therapy is still important since it attacks the belief part of the cycle but it should be in conjunction with medical treatment that attacks the biological problems contributing to the cycle of  mental illness.

   Interpersonal therapy is based on the idea that a lack of social skills lead to low self esteem and depression.  Can depression affect one's social skills?  Could low self esteem lead to social rejection? If so there could be a vicious cycle leading to rejection

    The existence of vicious cycles make it much harder to get up when one is down.  When one is a victim the existence of vicious cycles make it likely that one will be victimized further. 

   This at first may seem to be a depressing concept.  Yet there is a silver lining to this if we realize that even the most powerful and destructive emotional cycles need fuel just like hurricanes do and we can cut off that fuel by countering the elements of the cycle.  Another silver lining is that the same principle that brings us down can lift us up.  In otherwords there may be a way to create a cycle that lifts us upward. 

    Can we think of examples of positive cycles?  Lets consider people who have gone from poverty to riches in their life time.  Some of these people achieve incredible wealth and success.  This is partly because money makes money.  That fact is an example of a positive cycle.  

    How can we ride an emotional cycle upward?  In order to understand how to do so we need to examine the thinking that leads to an emotional cycle downward.  In the cycles that spiral downward our response to negative events increases the occurrences of those events.    Consider for example a woman who concludes she is ugly after being rejected by a man and then becomes depressed.  Her depression will then make her more likely to be rejected by men.  Now supposing she changed her response to the situation.   What if she drew the conclusion that by improving her mood she would make herself more attractive to men.  What if she drew the conclusion that when she became more attractive to men that would improve her mood further and a positive cycle would be created?  Then she will begin riding a cycle upward.

    There is a duality to life and although cycles are self feeding forces also develop that slow them down.  The hurricane for example, by expending energy runs out of energy when it is not being fed by hot water vapor over the ocean.  Likewise if a man becomes wealthy he is likely to become more wealthy and acquire many of the things he wants  but he also becomes a target of those who would steal his wealth.  Similarly if someone is on a downward trend there are forces that may come into play to lift him up such as people who try and help him.

   I used to enjoy the delusion that my understanding of cycles was a somewhat original discovery.  Although I had heard the term "vicious cycle" before I thought I was the first to understand how much it contributed to emotional problems.  Then a reader alerted me to the work of a psychiatrist I had never heard of, Abraham Low, who wrote a book called Mental Health through Will Training that was first published in 1950.  The second paragraph of the twelfth edition of his book discusses vicious cycles in mental illness.   In it he wrote:

After leaving the hospital the mental patient is supposed to be restored to health.  This is true in most instances if by mental health it meant the absence of delusions and hallucinations, of violent impulsiveness and indifference to group standards. 

   He goes on to write that the patient's problems may not be over and that:

On a given night he might have difficulty falling asleep.  This is apt to alarm him.  The alarm increases the difficulty of sleeping.  Then more alarm, more sleeplessness and more alarm yet.  A vicious cycle is thus set going which may keep the patient from properly resting night after night.  Other vicious cycles may soon establish themselves. 

   It is interesting and very instructive that example given by Dr. Low is sleeplessness.  Sleeplessness is known to lead to psychotic symptoms.  In fact I have a web page called Fueling Mental Illness that discusses this.  I even have a vicious cycle diagram that connects anxiety with sleeplessness and a web page devoted to the importance of sleep


Cycle List

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