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October 2, 2020

A Doctor Explains “Cognitive Bypassing” & How it’s Keeping us Trapped in our Trauma.

 

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I am a physician, neuroscientist, and anxiety expert. 

Many people I speak with have anxiety because they are trapped in their heads. I’d like to introduce a term here that I have not heard before (at least not in my field of medicine and psychology).

I call it the “Cognitive Bypass.”

I see a lot of therapists and coaches instruct others to restructure their thoughts. It’s seen as a way to avoid painful emotions and even heal old traumas and anxieties. We live in a neck-up society; we avoid being in our bodies unless our bodies feel good. Uncomfortable emotions are compulsively explained away or distracted from our minds.

There is no shortage of self-help gurus and coaches out there to help you “process” your traumas by creating new thought processes around them (the positive psychology movement is a good example). “Just think better, and you’ll feel better,” they say. While this may help in the short-term, it may well be counterproductive in the long-term.

Have you ever tried to think differently than how your body feels? You can do it for a while, but in general, it’s like Sisyphus endlessly pushing a rock up an incline.

There is nothing wrong with using cognitive strategies as part of your emotional well-being. However, when I see life coaches and cognitive behavioral therapists telling their clients that every negative emotion must be restructured or explained cognitively, I cringe. Compulsively adding cognition to emotion ensures your traumas can never fully heal. The uncomfortable truth is that there is a component of painful emotions that simply must be felt, as hard as that may be to hear.

I know this will sound odd from a medical doctor, but healing trauma has more to do with embracing the feeling in the body than holding on to the thoughts of the mind. Human beings are being driven into their heads as a way of avoiding emotion, especially grief.

Grief is constantly pushed aside in our society. So much of our psychopathology is due to unresolved grief over the losses we’ve sustained, especially in childhood. It is not so much grief over deaths of loved ones (although that is certainly a significant cause) as grief over a parental divorce, childhood abuse, neglect, or other great losses.

There are plenty of therapists who will help you with those losses, but how many let you sit in it without the need to compulsively add an explanation? What if not compulsively explaining painful emotions is a critical component in allowing the space to metabolize that emotion? Maybe then the trauma underneath it can resolve and ultimately heal.

“Spiritual Bypassing” was a term coined in the 1980s by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood. He explains it as a “Tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

Cognitive Bypassing is the practice of avoiding feelings by detouring into cognitive ideas or beliefs. Cognitive bypassing operates under the assumption that every trauma and emotion can be fixed cognitively or restructuring the way you think. Again, I have no issue with cognitive restructuring, but I most certainly have an issue if every single time an emotion is felt, it must be “worked” or cognitively manipulated.

There are many people (not trained in trauma) who believe they can help others heal by changing cognition. And I believe this is happening more and more with the sheer number of life coaches being turned out each year. Coaches (especially those who are not familiar with emotional trauma) can do more harm than good. “Coaching” people out of their trauma and uncomfortable emotions is a dangerous game.

Some emotions need to be left alone and felt.

Sure, understanding the source of your grief and trauma is important, but there must be some time to simply sit with it and feel it without automatically and compulsively adding thought to it. I am against relentlessly attempting to develop an artificial, rational structure around trauma or grief—that blocks the process of healing.

To add a common metaphor, it adds layers to the wound, which eventually will need to be peeled away before a true resolution can occur. Sure, explaining things away may ease the pain in the short term, but it can easily become a conditioned habit. Once the bypassing starts and provides a temporary hit of dopamine, the human brain will follow that process just as it would an addiction. And true to form for all addictions, cognitive bypassing will provide short-term relief, but no long-term satiation. Along with the other component of addiction, this behavior is destructive in the long-term.

That is why I say, “You’ve got to feel it to heal it.” If every single time you feel something you have to “explain” or “work” it, you actually lose the meaning in the feeling. In simplistic terms, the left brain is linear, linguistic, and thought-based, and the right is more amorphous and meaning-based. As soon as you bring a right-brained emotional meaning into the left-brain analysis, you lose the ipseity or the deeper meaning of the feeling. Perhaps more importantly, you also lose touch with that feeling’s potential message.

Feelings cannot be directly translated into words. If you ask a woman to explain the joy of giving birth (after the pain, of course), the linguistic description always pales compared to the actual emotion. Try to explain to someone who doesn’t speak your language what heartache feels like, and you’ll begin to see my point. Emotions can’t be explained at a level that matches their real intensity or meaning. The foreigner may get a sense of what you tell them by the tone of your voice, the emotion in your face, and your body language, but the words add little value.

Feelings and emotions are messengers, and often the message has to be truly felt first and only then interpreted—if those emotions need to be cognitively interpreted at all. When we interpret the emotion before the emotion is truly felt, we bypass our lives and neglect our true selves. When we try to examine something too closely with our minds, we lose the feeling of it in our bodies. And the feeling in our bodies is where life lives.

Here’s an analogy: your retina has rods and cones. Rods detect shades of gray and white, and cones detect color. The part of your retina dedicated to central vision is the fovea, and it contains only cones. When you look directly at a distant star, it disappears because the fovea cannot pick up the white light; it only sees color. But if you look just to the star’s left or right, it comes back into view because now the part of your retina with gray and white sensing rods allows you to appreciate what initially appeared not to be there.

When you try to “look” directly at an emotion with relentless analysis, you lose the ability to see it and its real message. That is what I mean by cognitive bypassing—the tendency to explain the feeling rather than just sitting with it and allowing it to metabolize and integrate. Again, I am not dismissing our cognition entirely.

We need what Dr. Dan Siegel calls a “Coherent Narrative” of our trauma, a cognitive understanding of the story of our wounding. But just understanding the story is not enough to heal it. It’s been said that “Insight is the popcorn of psychotherapy.” And to me, that means that merely understanding “why” is only a part of the process of healing. To heal trauma, you need both a rational, thinking structure and an ability to just sit with the pain with no need to explain or manipulate it. Counterintuitively, leaving it alone will allow it to come to you.

I am not against cognition and changing how you think about your emotions, especially the painful ones. However, I am against compulsively and relentlessly using thinking or “working it” every time you feel an emotion. That’s not living life in your body; that is bypassing feeling and becoming trapped in thinking.

You can’t think your way out of a feeling problem. If you use thinking as a way of escaping feeling, you’ll train yourself to bypass life and go into your head when you should stay in your body. Life lives in the feeling of your body and not in the thinking of your mind.

But your mind will do its best to tell you otherwise.

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