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  • Writer's pictureTony Humphreys

Why Cognitive Distortions are so painful and difficult to change...

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

"Cognitive distortions involve negative thinking patterns that aren’t based on fact or reality. You can help change these thinking patterns to promote your mental well-being"

The following is an example of how Cognitive Distortions can generate a hugely distressing reaction, despite the resulting thinking style being unrecognisable from the trigger event itself.

I had a prospective client recently, he saw that I treat addiction and wanted to talk specifically about his concerns about 'Porn Addiction'. Let’s call him 'Pt. X' (obviously not his real name). A Ph.D. student doing well in his chosen academic path. Looking as though he will receive his doctorate within the next few months. Great! Well, yes, but in an initial assessment it seemed that overthinking had plagued him from an early age and particularly recently as he experienced a trigger that hurled him into a mire of dissonant thoughts ending up with a really distressing few weeks.

So, what happened? Well, 'Pt. X'…. how shall we put it…enjoyed a little internet based erotica – you get the gist! All perfectly innocent, depending of course on your aesthetic preferences. However, as a result of a ‘Google’ search, he received a pop-up warning him about the dangers of ‘Child Pornography’. The warning was designed to stop him going any further and accessing anything ‘illegal’ - which was clearly not his intention as he reported feeling sickened and like he had been hit by a bolt of lightening. He said he was searching for something he had seen on a well-known adult site, as content goes, innocuous - his wording upset Google though!. Anyway, he was now in an extremely anxious state, imagining all manner of unpleasant consequences, not eating, not sleeping and importantly not being able to focus on his academic work.

Obviously I had to establish if his concerns were justified before trying to allay them and help him 'Cognitively Reconstruct' his thoughts. He wasn't imagining this, the pop-up banner is indeed there, its a prominent ‘warning’ and deterrent designed to help people avoid getting into trouble and even supplies a link to access help in the event of them feeling they have an issue worthy of an intervention – so well done Google for taking responsibility in that respect!* I understand Microsoft Edge has a similar resource, I’ll take that as a given, my research is done! This is a good thing though, isn't it? 'Pt. X' saw a warning that suggested he had best turn at the next junction, he did, the end? This isn’t how 'Pt. X' saw things though. Being someone who, from my brief discussion with him had a long standing pre-disposition for anxiety, he was coming to his own conclusions, he was telling himself stories that had little or no basis in fact and as a result was launched off into the anxiety stratosphere losing all touch with a pragmatic and rationale way of thinking.

The plan, should he have taken up the offer, would have been to try to help him access what **Richard Carlson (Stop Thinking Start Living) calls 'Healthy Functioning'. This is that part of our mind that is pragmatic, rationale and able to assimilate the facts of any given situation prior to us adding a plethora of embellishments - the result of which is normally distressing anxieties and depression.

So all ready to help him get some clarity and distance from his over-thinking using 'Cognitive Restructuring', I was waiting for 'Pt. X' to call me back with a time and date for a first session. However, he didn’t come back, and I haven't heard anything since. Hopefully he is established with a good therapist who can help him further.

So, there's a little background, but how did this prospective client's distress go from 0 mph to 1000 mph in a matter of minutes? I'll pick this and other examples apart in my next entry.

** - Richard Carlson book....a must for those struggling with Anxiety


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