How to Break a Vicious Cycle: Target the Weakest Link

Photo by pratanti -

Learn how to recognize the weakest point in the vicious cycle of distress. Whether you’re managing anxiety and panic, or in relationship with a disturbed character, stop the cycle before it escalates out of control.

Long before I began specializing in the areas of personality and character disturbance, a principal focus of my therapy practice was helping people overcome anxiety and panic. The psychological research on anxiety disorders and their treatment is quite rich, and has yielded perhaps more practical, useful, and proven methods for helping folks overcome these types of problems than any other mental health malady. Having been trained in a wide variety of methods, some of which were just proving themselves to be the treatments of choice, and having struggled with anxiety problems of my own earlier in life, I was eager to help people whose lives were so negatively impacted by their various anxiety-related disorders.

One of the most important things one eventually has to learn about managing anxiety is that its symptoms and a person’s typical response to them most often fuel a vicious cycle (or vicious circle) of events. If this goes unchecked it can lead to very high levels of distress. Most of the time, this takes place ‘under the radar’ of a person’s conscious attention, so they don’t have a chance to appreciate its role in the panic that might eventually ensue. A typical scenario might go like this: A woman struggles with panic attacks and agoraphobia (i.e., literally, “fear of the marketplace” or fear of being in open spaces or among crowds); she notices she is out of milk and needs to drive to the store for more. She experiences a bit of anxiety related to what to do, and that anxiety fuels some negative self-talk about the last time she had to go out and drive somewhere alone. As she reaches the door, she experiences a few palpitations; then she begins to anticipate the other symptoms she might experience, remembering the last time she had a panic while going to the store. She hesitates for a moment and when she entertains the thought of just staying home, her palpitations calm down. This reinforces her idea that going out will be a disaster (and exemplifies the fact that most agoraphobic panic suffers don’t actually fear the market itself but rather, they fear the distress they expect to experience in that environment). Later, she tries again and almost makes it to the car before she is overcome by a wave of panic. She tries using the strategies her therapist taught her but the waves of panic keep coming. She remembers she didn’t feel this way when she was safe in the house, makes a bee line for the door, then the couch and remains there the rest of the day. She has no palpitations, no fears of dying or losing control, but she also has no milk.

Try Online Counseling: Get Personally Matched

One of the most important lessons to be learned from a story like the one above is that even though a person’s therapist might have given them tools to manage their anxiety, it’s almost always too late to start using them effectively once a full-blown panic occurs. The spiraling interplay of thoughts, nervous system responses, and avoidance behaviors has already cycled to a fever pitch by the time panic sets in. So, the best time to use the tools is at the first moment one experiences any apprehension at all (e.g., when the woman in the story first notices she’s out of milk and begins thinking about the reality that she might have to venture out to the store). It’s much easier to break a vicious cycle when you break the ‘chain’ of escalating events at its weakest (and most often, earliest) link.

Vicious cycles of self-defeat also occur in unhealthy relationships, especially relationships with disturbed characters. And although I’ve spent a whole career attempting to empower folks with tools they can use to chart a better course, many times it seems they’re hesitant to use those tools on the ‘little stuff.’ But when you’re in a seriously unhealthy or abusive relationship, ‘little stuff’ typically leads to bigger stuff and it’s not uncommon for situations to escalate out of control before you know it. So, as I have written about in some prior posts (see: “Empowerment Tools: Act Now, Before It’s Too Late” and “Empowerment Tools: Don’t Threaten, Just Act”) and in both my books, In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, it’s important to break those vicious cycles at the weakest point in the behavior chain. That would mean, for example, enforcing a boundary and disengaging with someone at the first offensive verbal barrage they go on, rather than waiting until things have escalated to the point of vile name-calling, shouting, and threatening.

Vicious cycles are quite simple to break. The reason this doesn’t always seem easy is not so much because they don’t have a weak link (all vicious cycles do) but because folks don’t place enough importance on taking action early. In the case of anxiety disorders, this is often because the person hasn’t yet adequately trained themselves in the art of spotting the subtlest, weakest, anxiety signs early in the cycle. In the case of problem relationships, it’s generally because the long-suffering and enduring person in an abusive situation hasn’t yet come to appreciate the supreme value of immediate self-assertion as opposed to tolerating in the hopes things will get better on their own. But whether you struggle with anxiety or you’re in a relationship with a difficult person, it would behoove you to take note of the vicious cycles that often fuel your difficulties and commit to breaking them at their earliest, weakest point.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

No Comments Yet on “How to Break a Vicious Cycle: Target the Weakest Link”

Would you like to start a discussion on “How to Break a Vicious Cycle: Target the Weakest Link”?

Overseen by an international advisory board of distinguished academic faculty and mental health professionals with decades of clinical and research experience in the US, UK and Europe, provides peer-reviewed mental health information you can trust. Our material is not intended as a substitute for direct consultation with a qualified mental health professional. is accredited by the Health on the Net Foundation.

Copyright © 2002-2023. All Rights Reserved.