roundabout circular thinking felix and sage psychology

Exiting the Roundabout: Part 1

When I moved to Melbourne’s outer east and was still getting a feel of the lay of the land, I once found myself in the vicinity of Wicklow Avenue, close to the Croydon bus depot and train station. Completely unprepared, I encountered this:

Two Roundabouts in One | Felix and Sage

Confusion! Mayhem! Two roundabouts in one! So…. I went round (as in fully round) Roundabout 1, then on take two managed to exit to go back onto Wicklow in Roundabout 2.

A few weeks later I encountered yet another traffic oddity: three roundabouts right next to each other in Mooroolbark (it feels worse in real life than it looks on the map!):

It seems the town-planning council must have had a particularly adventurous and fun time when designing these roads. Maybe having a little chuckle to themselves about all the innocent, unsuspecting road users who could be stuck going round and round forever, in constant search of the correct exit!  

Our minds often work like roundabouts too. We often get stuck in circular thinking and circular actions. Let me give you a few examples:

There are countless examples of this type of roundabout thinking. In obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the thoughts (the obsessions) and the compulsions (the stuff we do to help alleviate some of the anxiety the thought brings up – like checking, tapping or washing) are feeding each other in a never-ending circle. In some eating disorders, restriction (i.e. “I should only eat certain very limited types of foods”) and guilt (“I shouldn’t have eaten that! I’d better not eat it again in future!”) form a similar circle. And when we are in a particularly negative frame of mind (“the world is a bad place”) our radar tends to be more tuned in to noticing the very things that confirm this gloomy hypothesis. Dismissing the data that will indicate that the world is indeed filled with at least some good too (in technical terms this is called “attentional bias”.)

When we feel low on confidence, or even suffer from severe social anxiety, our very feelings become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clients would often say: “I feel so anxious about saying the right thing to people, that I get really caught up in my thoughts trying to figure out how not to be judged. Then I do not listen to what the other person says. Then I lose track of what I wanted to say. Then I feel anxious about that. Then I know that I am so awkward in social situations that I never say the right thing… Which makes me want to avoid talking to people altogether!”

Avoidance, of course, is the start of a whole new roundabout that is very hard to exit: If I feel anxious about going to a social event, and I try to alleviate the anxiety by NOT going, that only serves to reward my avoidant behaviour! Having said that, with some specific phobias, avoidance is quite possible and not a problem. For example a person who is extremely afraid of being in high buildings. In a country like Australia, high buildings are easily avoided (as there are so few of them!). Chances are good that your everyday life will be minimally affected, by avoiding going in a building that is, say, higher than 5 stories. But in a country like Singapore, you’re in for a great deal of anguish and disruption if you avoid high buildings. You would probably not be able to go to the office, or visit friends in their flat on the 25th floor. Many restaurants will be out of bounds, and even shopping will be an issue.

So in that scenario, avoidance will be a huge problem. As it will only strengthen the fear, and cement the narrative of “I am a fearful person and I cannot do this”, with a significant negative impact on the person’s quality of life. What we would aim for in therapy is to exit this roundabout of fear, worry, anxiety which feeds into avoidance, which feeds into the fear again.  

Now, whether we struggle with depression, anxiety, flat mood, conflict, avoidance, confusion, or whatever tricky feelings and thoughts, the million-dollar-question is, of course:

How do I exit the roundabout?

Stay tuned for the next blog where I will look at some strategies to help us exit these tricky mental roundabouts, and create healthier cycles that will get us unstuck and en route to a fuller, more meaningful life.   

Lindie Oppermann
Felix & Sage Psychology

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