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The Neurotic Loops at the Core of Many Mental Disorders

Neurotic loops are formed by negative reactions to negative feelings.

Key points

  • Neurotic loops are at the core of anxiety and depressive conditions.
  • They are formed by negative reactions to negative situations that elicit negative feelings.
  • Often there is a critical inner voice that avoids, blames, and controls.
  • It is important to learn to identify the critical voice and the neurotic loop and learn to shift perspective.

Sara was so frustrated with herself and the situation that she just could not take it anymore. She had tried repeatedly to please her boss, but once again, he yelled at her for not meeting his expectations and then just ignored what she said when she tried to explain what had happened. When he did that, she felt the familiar feelings of both shrinking fear and defensively fighting back.

But she had done neither. Instead, she had just sat there, kind of frozen, and nodded with an awkward smile on her face. And now she was back in her home, sitting on her bed, wondering what was wrong with her: Why couldn’t she be more assertive? Why was her boss such a jerk? Why did she feel so vulnerable? Why did life suck so badly?

This is the second in a series of seven posts that will give you the tools to revert maladaptive cycles and move toward healthier living. The first post clarified what internalizing conditions are and identified neurotic loops as the core process underlying them. To briefly recap, the internalizing conditions are the primary reasons why folks seek psychotherapy and consist of adjustment disorders, anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders, and usually involve low self-esteem, self-criticism, relationship conflicts, and general dissatisfaction with life. A neurotic loop is a maladaptive strategy to cope with negative situations that is analogous to bringing water to a grease fire: It makes logical sense but ends up making the problem worse. This blog will teach you how to identify neurotic loops and explain why they create so many psychological problems.

What are neurotic loops?

A neurotic loop is when a negative situation elicits a negative feeling, which gives rise to a secondary negative reaction. Getting fired from your job, having an argument with your spouse, missing a deadline, and flunking a test are all examples of negative situations that should elicit negative feelings. However, these negative situations/negative feeling sequences often trigger a secondary set of negative reactions that makes both the situation and the feelings worse. We can see this in Sara’s response. As she sat on her bed, she had trouble accepting what had happened, had the need to control the situation going forward, and blamed herself, thinking that something was fundamentally wrong with her.

This example helps us to see the three components of neurotic loops. First, there are negative situations (i.e., her boss yelled at her). Second, there are the “primary” negative feelings that emerged as a natural consequence (i.e., she felt hurt, vulnerable, and defensive). Third, there are secondary negative reactions that make the situation worse (i.e., as she sat on the bed, she loathed her life and herself). These are the three loops of the neurotic loop chain and why we often call them “triple negative” neurotic loops.

What does this mean? It means that when you are feeling lousy, it is useful to be clear about 1) the situation you are reacting to; 2) the primary negative feelings you have about the situation; and 3) the secondary thoughts, feelings, and urges that you have about the whole thing. Then, ask yourself whether you are engaged in a triple negative neurotic loop. To answer this question, you can wonder if you have activated a “CRITIC”—an inner voice that is critical, resistant, irritable, tense, insistent, and closed to new information—or are otherwise engaged in avoidance, blame, or control in misguided ways.

The ABCs of the Negatively Reacting CRITIC

To avoid neurotic loops, it is important to be aware and attuned to what our emotions are communicating. Our emotional responses have evolved over millions of years to help us navigate the world according to our goals. In this way, our emotions are highly informative about what our valued states of being are and can help us deal with stressful situations by orienting us toward what is important. Negative feelings are natural and reflect a set of automatic responses to negative situations. Feeling flustered after an argument, disappointed after you make a mistake at work, or betrayed after you find out your spouse cheated on you are all expected negative emotional reactions to stressful events.

In neurotic loops, however, there is a failure to tolerate the distress that negative events naturally elicit. Subsequently, we engage in a defensive secondary reaction that is often judgmental, critical, and controlling. For example, flunking a test can be seen as a temporary failure that one can recover from, or it could be interpreted as a sign of one’s fundamental ineffectiveness.

In many ways, the CRITIC makes sense. That is, it is only natural to be critical if bad things keep happening. However, the way the CRITIC reacts is often counterproductive. Activating the CRITIC in response to negative situations is often akin to bringing water to a grease fire. It just makes a bad situation worse.

The CRITIC tends to adopt one of three problematic reactions that form the ABCs of neurotic loops. Because the CRITIC is tense and in distress, it tries to resist its feelings and deny the reality of the situation. This gives rise to avoidant strategies and reactions that are problematic. The CRITIC is, well, critical and thus tends to blame oneself, others, or the world for the problem at hand. Finally, the CRITIC is often irritable and insistent and closed to new information, which makes them narrowly focused and oriented toward controlling themselves or the world in a problematic or misguided way. This means that to overcome neurotic loops, we need to become aware of the CRITIC, understand its logic, and then learn to shift our avoidant, blaming, and controlling reactions into a curious, accepting attitude that is loving and compassionate and motivated toward valued states of being.

Shifting from the CRITIC to CALM

There is a more efficient way to deal with negative situations and negative emotions. The CRITIC voice may make sense, but it fails to cultivate well-being in the long term. When one realizes that negative reactions to negative feelings are a bad combo, one can shift from a CRITIC perspective into a CALM one. CALM is an acronym that stands for curiosity, acceptance, loving compassion, and motivation toward valued states of being.

The CALM perspective is aware and attuned to the reality of the negative situation and the nature of the negative feelings associated with it. It tells us that, when dealing with a stressful scenario, it is better to be curious rather than critical and closed off; accepting rather than resistant to the negativity of the situation; loving and compassionate rather than irritable and blaming; and motivated toward improvement rather than insistently controlling.

Returning to Sara, what we would hope for her is to take a CALM breath and shift from her negative reactivity into a more responsive set. Indeed, we might even have her take a minute and imagine herself looking at her experience from a different perspective, perhaps from the corner of the room. Seeing herself from that distance might help her see the situation differently, perhaps from the point of view of a friend she trusts or a wise elder.

From this perspective, she can wonder: “What would this friend or wise elder say about my situation and my feelings, and what would they advise me to do?” This shift in perspective from negative reactivity to reflective responsivity is the first step in the CALM-MO approach, and we will focus on how to develop it in our next blog in this series.

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