The Thought, Emotion, Behavior Cycle and Maladaptive Behaviors

We are going to look at how emotions can influence behaviors and vice versa. As well as how thoughts can lead to emotions and behaviors. It is often a three piece cycle, fluctuating from thoughts to emotions to behaviors then back to thought again. It is important to explore this cycle as for many people a minor difficulty can snowball into a bigger issue once the cycle starts to go. For some people, without being aware, there is no way to stop this spiral, especially for addictive behaviors such as drug use, risky sex, self-harm, and manipulation. Though these maladaptive behaviors might give short-term awards, which is why we engage in them, they may ultimately bring us further pain down the road. Eventually, they can even prevent us from reaching our goals.


First, What are Maladaptive Behaviors?


There are healthy coping mechanisms, then there are unhealthy coping mechanisms. Maladaptive behaviors are unhealthy coping mechanisms and behaviors we engage in to ease emotional pain or achieve pleasure, but that are not necessarily healthy for us. In fact they are usually a sign of a stunted growth somewhere in our emotional development. Engaging in them prolongs our inability to adjust and mature in the area. They could be things like people pleasing or targeting someone weaker in the room and causing them emotional distress because we feel insecure in our own selves. It could be spamming your ex to get a reaction to feel in control or deny that the relationship is over. Many times these behaviors stem from somewhere, such as someone being extremely needy and constanly seeking reassurance because they were neglected as a child. Even so, we still need to curb them before they burn through all our opportunities and ruins things permanently for us.


They Can Contradict With Your Goals


Maladaptive behaviors can contradict with your goals. Nadia Flower, for example, has a goal of making new friends so she can have a social life and be less bored at home. Unfortunately, Nadia get's impatient, especially when she doesn't get the attention she craves. So, at this program where she could meet new people, though she wants to make healthy friendships, she contstantly puts herself on the spot saying all sorts of outlandish stuff and even talking about sensitive topics that others find offensive. She gets a lot of attention but it's not in a good way and people start to avoid her. She is sorry because she really wants to make friends but she also wants lots of attention and is bored stiff easily. Her habit of intentionally putting her foot in her mouth paid off one way but it ultimately contradicts with her goal of making new friends. Do you think you have contradicting goals anywhere where one cancels out the other? Remember the goal that cancels out your primary goal and only makes you temporarily satisfied is not much of a goal. It's a maladaptive behavior. Make a list of at least three of your goals and then place beside them any behavior that contradicts the goal.


They Can Spiral Out of Control


Because more and more people start to avoid Nadia and form their own groups she feels even more starved for attention. She starts putting on bigger displays of offensive behavior and banter. They get so disruptive to her and the community program that she is asked to leave. Eventually she is back at home feeling as though she were abandoned and neglected once again just like in her childhood. Though she has created this isolation for herself, the maladaptive behaviors of seeking attention at any means have created a sort of blind spot where she is unable to see or feel anything outside of this desire once she gets at the height of the emotion. Can you think of any blind spots you might have had in the past or have currently. Think about a situation like Nadia's case where you're own actions were the obstacles to your goal, and yet you weren't able to stop them.


Behavioral Patterns


Even though going through what she did was painful, Nadia eventually moves on to another scenario where the same thing happens again. She's shocked and confused. She starts to feel that everyone is simply bad. It's not until she takes a break to think about her life. These scenarios of her putting herself on the spot and being rejected has been an ungoing reinactment for years and years. In fact, when Nadia thinks about it, it almost leaves her feeling as though she's been scripted and programmed to repeat the same behaviors over and over again.


She dives into a social situation, she seeks attention at the cost of tarnishing her character, she receives negative attention, she gets into a fight or throws a tandrum and she burns a bridge. But her thoughts and emotions were what led to her behavior. It went something like this: "I'm not being notice." > Sadness, desperation, loneliness > Talking really loud about something shocking.


The more Nadia begins to break it down, the more she sees that the pattern repeated itself but even more aggressively in each stage. The "I'm not being noticed" thought turned to "Everyone is rude and too dumb for me" the sad and desperate emotion turned to anger, and the attention seeking behavior went from talking really loud about something shocking to talking about things that others found confrontational.


Many people suffering from an emotion dysregulation disorder probably can relate to Nadia. We all have a behavioral pattern in some retrospect but people with an EDD are almost bound to their disruptive ones if they don't realize them and learn strategies to rise above them. Maladaptive behaviors create a blind spot where the sufferer can't see no other way to act. It's like they are stuck on a foggy frequency without knowing it. This doesn't only happen interpersonally, but it can effect other areas of your life such as eating out of control or starving yourself, doing too much work or procrastinating.


Solution/Activity


1. The first step in getting off a harmful thought- emotion - behavior merry-go-around is to acknowlege the cycle in full detail. Think about where they've come from, how they effect you and others, and how they repeat and intensifies over time in a particular scenario. Look at all the rewards you recieve from the maladaptive behaviors. Believe it or not, there got to be some sort of reward, for even the most harmful behaviors. This is why we do them. In science experiments experts have even seen rats knowingly commit suicide, all in the name of getting a desired treat even. In the moment it didn't matter if they were simultaneously getting an electric jolt or poison in the process. You can complete this first stage by responding to the following.


a) What is the scenario and goal?

b) What is the contradictionary maladaptive behavior?


c)

Cycle 1:

Thought:

Emotion:

Behavior

Rewards:

Consequence:


Cycle 2:

Thought:

Emotion:

Behavior

Rewards:

Consequence:


Cycle 3:

Thought:

Emotion:

Behavior

Rewards:

Consequence:


Cycle 4:

Thought:

Emotion:

Behavior

Rewards:

Consequence:


2. Think about your treats and their poisons. Then, finally, come up with alternative ways to handle a situation. List all of the healthier or more appropriate options you can think of. Even consider how a mature role model you look up to might act or think. Maybe you need to imply the opposite action skill, or use your non-judgemental mindfulness thinking skill. Maybe you need to radically accept something, use distraction, focus on a new goal, or take a break from a scenario. How about paced breathing or the ice technique? Are there any thinking traps you might need to work through with a coping or self-encouraging thought? You can make a chart like the example below. (Note: Risk factors are those that trigger the maladaptive behavior. They could be a thought, an emotion, as well as an event such as someone ignoring you or a break up.)

To continue working on maladaptive behaviors you can find the Overcoming Maladaptive Behaviors Worksheet PDF in Fileshare.

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