Cognitive Bypassing

Russell Kennedy
702 words, 16K views, 18 comments

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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 [people] 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 [people feeling] 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. 


Excerpt from here.

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