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Vicious to Virtuous V2V Free Recovery Programme Resources - Module 5

How to change how your brain keeps you addicted.

V2V Free Online Recovery Programme from Esteem Therapy Yorkshire

Module 5 – Cognitive Distortions or ‘How the Brain Tricks You Into Caving in to Cravings’ and How to Stop Them

You are, aside your sexual addiction, most likely at least moderately successful, law-abiding, kind, intelligent and likeable with relationships, career and reputation worth safeguarding.  Why then, do you compulsively revert to porn and sex behaviours which could easily cost you everything?  Why do you constantly indulge in behaviours that are probably conflicting with your values? The answer most likely lies in the subject of cognitive distortion, which explains why we do things we don’t really want to!  This explains why many sex and porn addicts take all sorts of risks by crossing the thin into unhealthy and dysfunctional behaviours when in other aspects of their life they are rational and often risk-averse.

Cognitive distortions are possibly the most dangerous enemies of abstinence for sex and porn addicts. This is because until you have learned about them and begin to challenge them they are largely subliminal and very powerful impulses used by the brain to protect its regular surges of dopamine which comes from porn and sex. 

Firstly, let’s understand what cognitive distortions are and why they are so dangerous to your recovery.

The word cognitive refers to mental processes such as thoughts.  When we make a decision such as what action to take we will use cognitive processes to weight up the pros and cons.  Some of the time our cognitions, or thoughts, will be conscious and we are mostly in control of using the information at hand to weigh up those pros and cons.  Sometimes, and this is arguably the deal-breaker when it comes to stopping your addiction, your cognitions will be less conscious – just under the level of awareness (pre-conscious) or even well below awareness (unconscious).  This means that there are unseen mental forces at work which are in conflict with your desire to stop unhealthy and dysfunctional behaviours.

We can say that your rational thoughts are being distorted by ideas and notions that you are not in control of.  You might be asking ‘how can that be – that I am not in control of my own thoughts?’ Well, it’s not because there is something wrong with your mental capacity such as some sort of psychosis!  We all distort most of the time such as convincing ourselves that we deserve that extra glass of wine or bar of chocolate because we’ve had a tough day.

One very helpful idea which can get you in control of these hidden cognitive processes is to remember that your brain continuously works in mysterious and very clever and devious ways.  In sex and porn addiction when you start abstinence your brain detects when the supply of dopamine is being restricted.  When it discovers this change it works cunningly to restore the supply and this is where distortions come in. 

Remember that dopamine motivated us to promote the survival of our species by sending us out to hunt for food and shelter and to avoid predators.  Your brain is highly developed, as a result of millions of years of evolution, to trigger behaviours that guarantee its survival.  Dopamine is the messenger the brain uses to tell the body to seek out survival essentials. Once, dopamine kept us on the lookout for woolly mammoths and juicy berries! Here in the modern age we find it much easier to meet these basic survival needs and so whilst dopamine is outdated it is still part of our biological make-up.  Nowadays we are more likely to seek out things we can indulge in rather than basic needs such as eating or keeping warm. 

We don’t need chocolate, wine and other high calorie, sugary things – we just like them! So even though the original purpose of dopamine is vastly diminished our brain is still producing it and sadly has found that modern life has many other things to seek out such as those above or others including sex, porn, gambling, shopping and nicotine to name a few.  Nowadays our survival instincts are more likely to be triggered by modern threats such as trauma, stress at work or in relationships, or perhaps separation from a partner or possible redundancy.  Our ancestral dopamine circuits can easily and inadvertently be re-directed towards these new forms of consumption as ways of responding to threat.

Why are cognitive distortions so important to my recovery?

Knowing about cognitive distortions is part of the MIDAS toolkit because if you don’t understand the formidable control they exert over you your recovery will always be at risk.  By knowing they exist and how they work you can regain control over them and put techniques in place to overpower them.  Presently, your distortions are invisible enemies ready to ambush you on your journey to recovery, especially in your darker moments when triggers bring on cravings and possible relapse. By learning about them and bringing them into your conscious awareness you are, as though in the darkness, putting on night vision glasses so you can see distortions lurking in the shadows and fight back.

As we said in earlier modules you are in a sense at war with your brain – it is dependent on happy chemicals and will do what it can to protect its daily fix when things get tough. This module will show you which types of distortions your brain is using so that you can target them directly with your own, more powerful weapons – non-distorted, rational thoughts based squarely on the reality of your life, such as what is at stake if the distortions win.

This list covers most of the types of distortions your brain is using.  Look at them and make a mental note of those that seem to be more familiar!

Twisted logic – when your brain convinces you that addictive behaviours are actually quite a sensible and appropriate thing to do when in fact they are the opposite

Justifying – when your brain tells you that the behaviours are necessary and therefore justifiable, such as because you deserve them as a treat or ‘therapy’

Sheep mentality – this is when your brain tries to sway you by saying that everyone else is doing it so it is okay and normal for you to do it or even that you are missing out by not doing it

Blaming – the distortion is that the behaviours are somehow forced on you by someone or something else such as your partner, boss or your difficult circumstances

I’m special – this is your brain reminding you, irrationally of course, that you are indeed different from everyone else and have a right or special entitlement to these behaviours for example because you work hard or are successful or have special needs

Denial – your brain convinces you that this is not an addiction and therefore you do not have a problem and any negative consequences are because of something else

Making light – this is your brain reducing the significance of the behaviours so that they become almost negligible such as saying that you’ll only look at porn for 20 minutes or if no-one finds out there is little risk.

Mountain-making – this is the amplifying of life events so that they appear so overwhelming that negative consequences of the addictive behaviours seem minor and inconsequential by comparison.

Kryptonite effect – this is your brain convincing you that you have no choice but to give into cravings because you do not have the resources or strength to fight them. 

Step by step technique to conquer the power of cognitive distortions

  1. In The MIDAS toolkit we looked at the importance of practising mindfulness and being more in tune with your mood changes and trigger points.  The first step in controlling distortions is to use this self-monitoring to spot distortions before they ambush you.  This gives you the edge and provides a make or break decision point. For example, many addicts say they listen out for the inner dialogue between the ‘good-me’ and the ‘bad-me’.  Whilst the good-me is declaring ‘No, I’m not going to do this’ the bad-me will be giving you the distortion hard-sell such as ‘It’ll only be a few minutes so what’s the harm?’ or perhaps, ‘looking at porn is not as bad as having an affair is it?’ 
  2. Once you can hear what the bad-me is saying you have spotted one or more cognitive distortions – is it the sheep mentality trying to convince you that this is normal or is it the kryptonite effect saying that as a weak and unarmed opponent you have no choice but to give in.
  3. With the distortion labelled you can challenge it using well-crafted weaponry in the form of logic and reasoning based firmly on reality.  See the following challenges to examples of each of the distortions listed above.   Use the time afforded by the instant distraction technique to work on the distortions and bring your brain back into the world of rational thinking where you can be back in charge.
  4. With repeated challenge distortions will lose their power and the brain can be re-trained to focus on the rational thoughts.  Combined with mindfulness, distractions, remembering adverse consequences and self-validation, addressing cognitive distortions will probably be the most efficient tool in your recovery toolkit as you build up your abstinence.

Twisted logic – ‘I do this because it gives me an outlet for stress and is therefore better for my partner/family’ can be challenged by ‘I can adopt healthy ways of reducing and managing stress rather than using this dysfunctional one’

Justifying – ‘I deserve this because my job/family life/health is difficult and I need an escape’ can be challenged by ‘Sexual addiction behaviours are inappropriate as an escape and only create more problems in the long run’

Sheep mentality – ‘Porn makes up so much of the internet it must be acceptable to use it’ can be challenged by ‘Just because something is widespread does not make it good or right (for example rats, malaria, obesity) and I can make my own choices’

Blaming – ‘My family/boss/partner are so horrible to me it is their fault I do this not mine’ is challenged by ‘I make my own decisions so I am responsible for all the choices I make – and I choose not to do this.  Besides, if it is true that people are being horrible to me I need to deal with that, not self-destruct’

I’m special – ‘I work hard and have achieved a,b,and c so I am entitled to a bit of fun’ can be challenged by saying, ‘I work hard and achieve lots so I am entitled to treat myself properly by engaging in wholesome activities which will add to, and not detract from, my success’.

Denial - ‘What I do is not a problem as there are no negative consequences so it’s okay to carry on’ needs to be challenged by ‘I have lost time/money/self-esteem/mind-space/creativity/relationships etc. so clearly there is an issue which will only get worse with ever increasing negative results’

Making light – ‘I only visit massage parlours which is not like real sex so it’s ok’ and ‘I only look at porn so what’s the big deal, it’s not like I’m having an affair?’ can be challenged by remembering ‘My partner/wife will be distraught whatever sexual acting out I do outside the relationship which could result in separation/divorce’.

Mountain-making – ‘My life is so full of problems including money, work and relationships that seeing escorts/using porn regularly pales into insignificance – it’s the least of my worries’ must be challenged by something like ‘I can use better ways of addressing my root problems as these behaviours are only a short term sticking plaster and ultimately add to the burden’.

Kryptonite effect – ‘My addiction/compulsions are too strong for me to fight them so I may as well give in to the idea of being an addict’ can be challenged by remembering ‘I do have resources/techniques/commitment/willpower and have solved problems and overcome challenges before – I can conquer these pointless and dysfunctional behaviours’

Conquering Cognitive Distortions

Go through this list and score the strength of each distortion (some will be more powerful than others) than write down what the distortion sounds like.  Write down your personalised counter-attacks.

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