When I got my first real Windows computer back in the 90’s, my father told me about the importance of de-fragging the hard drive and deleting “junk files” (those that never had a purpose) and “temp files” (those that once had a function but are no longer useful). He stressed, and a quick google search will support, that a computer performs more efficiently when files are stored and accessed in a similar part of the hard drive and the unneeded files no longer take up space. You might not be a computer nerd like me, but this is a good segue into how some troublesome life experiences can get inefficiently and sometimes erroneously encoded, thereby making our thoughts less helpful and our overall functioning more sluggish.
Cognitive therapists believe, and research supports the idea that people interpret life events idiosyncratically, meaning, based on their innate temperament, their attributional style (where they place responsibility) and previous learning. As day-to-day events occur, we assign meaning to those events and store them in our brain. These encoded memories and their meaning are then accessed at a relevant point in the future. For example, if you have an enjoyable time bowling with a parent when you are a child, it is likely that when someone invites you to bowl at some later point, you will be inclined to think positively about the invitation and more likely to participate.
However, what happens when life experiences and/or the inferences we make about them are encoded in unhelpful ways? For example, a child that falls into a pool, is rescued by an adult, and learns that water is dangerous and should be avoided, might never learn to swim and can be extremely anxious when near pools, lakes, etc.; or, consider a teen, who tells a parent about a traumatic interpersonal experience, but feels dismissed, or worse, is punished, and is then unable to validate their own interpretations of similar events. Even more innocuous events, such as a young student getting a bad grade on an exam and incorrectly believing, “I am stupid,” can have big implications for emotional functioning.
So, how do cognitive therapists help people “de-frag” and delete the “junk” and/or “temp” meaning and ideas? First, they help clients identify the areas that need to be accessed. This is accomplished collaboratively via discussions within the therapy session as well as between session assignments. By exploring current scenarios that are causing distress and eliciting clients’ thinking about those scenarios, therapists and clients can focus their attention on certain thoughts and beliefs. Using Cognitive and behavioral techniques, therapists work with clients to determine in what ways their thinking about these situations is problematic and look to make changes. Through discussion, practice and by developing new coping skills, clients learn to think about similar situations in a more helpful way, thereby improving both mood and functioning.
In addition to being a computer nerd, Dr. Podolak is a cognitive behavioral therapist practicing in Mamaroneck, NY. Visit his website (evanpodolakcbt.com) for more information.