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  • Writer's pictureTony Humphreys

If it wasn't for those pesky thoughts...

Updated: Mar 6

So, moving on from my previous post. What are the main causes and rationale for someone to develop distressing thoughts that might be seen to come under the umbrella of Cognitive Dissonance or Cognitive Distortions? According to Wiki, Cognitive comes from the Medieval Latin cognitīvus, equivalent to Latin cognit(us), 'known'. Distortion means the act of twisting or altering something out of its true, natural, or original state. The main point to take from this is that at no point would anyone deny that there IS something that is being related to or thought about. On the contrary, I would suggest that in order for there to be a dissonance, or distortion, there has to be something that is being distorted. That's the whole fulcrum of both the problem and the potential solution. If there is a spider's web on my window (there is actually, I am looking at it now) that's a fact. If my thoughts and feelings as a result of seeing it are such that I develop a strong aversion, including a visceral physical reaction (sympathetic nervous system) inducing a strong Fight/Flight response - that might be seen as over calibrated in terms of my reaction. Then, if I go on to have a plethora of negative and disturbing cognitions, they in themselves could be seen as dissonant with the initial fact that there's a spider's web. This is how phobias work. There is a 'thing', we develop aversion to it, we magnify that aversion to the point it becomes a consistent source of fear and we react accordingly. But what about thoughts? How does this work with thoughts and their ability to generate a response similar to those above?

Therapists all round the world are right now telling clients that "...thoughts aren't things...", and this is true - unless you want to get into a debate about the nature of consciousness, I'm always up for that. But intrinsically 'thoughts' are temporary, ephemeral, mental phenomena. The problem of course is when we BELIEVE our distorted thoughts to be true. When we hear a subjective narrative telling us that the way we are thinking is valid, true and worthy of attention. This distortion can often fly in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Take our friend 'Pt. X' (see previous post), there was something there, a search result and subsequent deterrent warning. But he interpreted it as being a conduit for all sorts of horror stories, being unable to see any other way through the subsequent minefield of distressing thoughts and scenarios. Then what happens is our thoughts fast become irrefutable facts, we buy into their validity and off we go.....the dreaded cycle of Distorted Thinking, provoking a Fight/Flight response that apparently legitimises our distorted thinking. We naturally try to think our way out of these traps, and a Cognitive Therapist would suggest that by reframing our thoughts we can effect a positive change. CBT, Cognitive and Behavioural therapy, for example, uses CR or Cognitive Restructuring as a well practised method to address intrusive and unhelpful thinking. CR is a therapeutic process that helps the client discover, challenge, and modify or replace their negative, irrational thoughts or cognitive distortions; (Clark, 2013). (Festinger, 1957) too suggests establishing a more valid line of thinking offers a change in the distress level:

There are four strategies used to do reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance

  1. We change our behaviour so that it is consistent with the other thought.

  2. We change one of the dissonant thoughts in order to restore consistency.

  3. We add other (consonant) thoughts that justify or reduce the importance of one thought, and therefore diminish the inconsistency.

  4. We trivialize the inconsistency altogether, making it less important and less relevant.

So for 'Pt. X', had he have embarked on a course of CBT, we might have asked what seems to be the cornerstone of CBT cognitive work, " there another way of thinking about this…?" His alternative thoughts or thinking style might be that it was an experience he could learn from, the deterrent worked, he actually DID turn at the junction and apart from being a little more vigilant in the future he can move on. But this doesn't happen nearly as quickly as clients and indeed therapist might like.

Next, I plan on looking at how we can address those intrusive thoughts when they seem that ridged and ingrained, they feel un moveable.


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