Cognitive psychologists examine how PTSD arises from stressful thoughts while somatic psychologists focus on how PTSD arises from the body’s stress responses. I think that stress is being generated much of the time by both and they should be treated together. This article is an exploration of the relationship between cognitive distortions (The “Robot Suit”) and nervous system dysregulation of PTSD (The “Dinosaur Suit”).
In the last article, I described “The Dinosaur Suit,” a symbolic representation of all the types of activation states arising from the overactive reptilian brain and traumatized nervous system typical in PTSD.
When I was writing, I realized there is another “Suit” sneaking around in the shadows – Robot Suit!
For me, intense emotions don’t just arise from fight (anger, rage), flight (fear, terror), and freeze (numbness, apathy and paralysis) that spontaneously take hold in the nervous system when triggered by a reminder of past trauma. When I examine my emotions I can see that my thinking processes also lead to intense emotions. When these two areas get mixed up together it can be overwhelming.
In terms of cognitive distortions, I’m most familiar with Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy developed by Albert Ellis.
Ellis and other authors lay out the entire map for us in terms of how we may be using our own minds to lie to ourselves. We can lie to ourselves by thinking in absolutes – I absolutely have to have X. Absolutes generate demands, in which I believe that I, they or the world “should” or “must” act according to what I deem proper and right. We can fall into the trap of horribilization – thinking something is absolutely horrible rather than an accurate assessment of the inconvenience and actual loss of having some universal human needs go unmet represented by the incident or situation. We may think in black and white thinking in which we can only see BAD and GOOD and nothing in-between. Over-generalization may be in the mix as well – when we think things like “ALL” people are bad and I will “NEVER” amount to anything. And there are a number of additional distorted lenses on reality and mind tricks we play on ourselves you can learn about if you read any of the books on the subject.
These cognitive distortions sneak around in the shadows of the mind whispering – or yelling – bad things to us all the time.
Distorted visions of reality have a long history in religion and philosophy. These lenses onto the world relate in some ways to logical fallacies in philosophy, which looks only at the fact that they are irrational and illogical in the purest sense. More recently they have been researched scientifically by cognitive psychologists like Albert Ellis and others, such as David Burns in his book “Feeling Good.” While cognitive distortions are all irrational and illogical thoughts, they are multi-faceted and go beyond simply the lack of logic. This is why Ellis refers to them as “Believing-Emoting-Behaving,” which describes a conglomeration of different things creating a repeating pattern around the core irrational belief – so it’s more of a thinking-emoting-acting habit pattern which can become deeply ingrained and difficult to remove.
These Believing-Emoting-Behaving conglomerates sometimes come up as “Parts” in Self-Empathy work. A Part is a part of yourself you can speak with and give empathy to and in so doing get deeper into their core origins. Sometimes a Part that comes up is thinking in a distorted way and generating a lot of angst. Inner Mean Girls is a body of work that has divided our Inner Voices into a group of distinct personalities with names and characteristics, to better enable us to bring them out of the shadows and keep track of what they’re up to. And Shadow Work also identifies these and other kinds of Parts and arranges them, using other people, in a room to enable a dialogue and healing process to occur that, like Inner Empathy, seeks to uncover their origins.
I think that learning how to spot cognitive distortions when they poke their heads up out of the inner workings of our minds can be very helpful in the context of any healing modality.
The Robot Suit
I’m lumping these cognitive distortions, negative self-talk, voices of self-criticism, logical fallacies, Inner Mean Girls etc. into “The Robot Suit.” The Robot Suit is everything in ourselves that hinges on irrational beliefs about self, other or the world.
The reason I am calling them all the Robot Suit is because these voices become repetitive. They start to repeat over and over and over again. They behave like a robot that has been programmed to simply repeat one line over and over again to you. The robot was programmed a long time ago to keep repeating this sentence and it will not let go of it for anything because that’s what it was told to do.
Then the emotional response is also automatic. It’s a robotic, programmed, response.
This is how the Mental Software Program inside Robot Suit operates: First there is an external event and the button gets pushed for the robot to think the distorted thought. That distorted thought pushes another button to create the emotional response. It’s like a command sequence in a computer. “If (parameter X) then (parameter Y) = Feeling like shit” basically. This never-ending sequence is what Ellis calls the ABCs – A (the Activating Event) X B (the Irrational Belief ) = C (the Consequence) which is some kind of emotional state and/or behavior.
The Robot Suit is usually totally in control. We are not running the show anymore. Robot Suit generates robotically repetitive mantras of irrational ideas like, “This is horrible!” “I must find a solution!” “This cannot be!” “She must act the way I want!” “I can’t stand it!” over and over day in and day out. Cognitive distortions can drive thinking processes that generate intense emotions that lead to depression, violence and suicide so they are a serious matter.
When Dinosaur Suit and Robot Suit Are Worn Simultaneously
So, the Dinosaur Suit is basically this dumb reptile that reacts to stuff going on around it with instincts. It doesn’t use language but sets off processes in the body in response to things like sounds, sights, smells, tastes, touch, air temperature, time of year, mental images and memories.
Robot Suit, on the other hand, is very smart. It is in the higher, human mind. The Robot Suit thinks in actual language. You would hope that the sentences it thinks would be helpful but unfortunately Robot Suit has gotten into some bad habits of thinking sentences that create disturbances. Robot Suit is therefore a misuse of the gift of higher cognition that we humans have.
So, how do Dinosaur Suit and Robot Suit interact?
I went into this a little in another post (“Are You Part Rageaholic? All About Rageaholism and PTSD”) in which I point out that during PTSD the instinctive mind / nervous system – Dinosaur Suit – is fragile. The nervous system has been seriously thrown out of whack and needs a peaceful time for all the repairs to be made. The repair process is like tending a garden of tiny seedlings as the nervous system slowly, gradually is rebuilt to a more normal manner of functioning. It could also be thought of as rebuilding a city that has been turned to rubble by war.
Thinking cognitive distortions is like throwing grenades or rotten tomatoes at the people in the garden trying to get the baby seedlings to grow and the people who are trying to rebuild the city after disaster. It adds emotional upsets and disrupts healing; it adds insult to injury.
So, Robot Suit continuously disrupts the healing process of Dinosaur Suit. This is something I can observe in myself, but lately I have been noticing that this duo can create even worse problems than gumming up the healing process.
For example, both Suits generate exaggerated reactions to things.
Both Suits Exaggerate Things in Their Own Way
For example, I can perhaps be in a doctor’s office and Dinosaur Suit feels triggered by something or other – for example if the doctor mentions something that was part of the traumatic events or I have to go through a procedure that seems related. If mildly triggered, I may just get tense all over and feel sad, look away, slump my shoulders down and disassociate or blank out somewhat. If very triggered, I will have a much more exaggerated fear response. I will have a nervous system reaction that is in the body that says, “I may die, try to save life now!” With certain triggers, the Dinosaur Suit believes its life is truly in danger. This is because when triggered to this degree, Dinosaur Suit can only see 100% danger. It can’t see anything less than this. It’s gone back in time and the danger IS 100% at the time it has traveled to. Seeing 100% life threatening danger creates terror, anger and/or paralysis in the body. This is an automatic exaggerated physiological response.
Then Robot Suit begins thinking some distorted thoughts about what’s going on with my body and the situation: “I must never be massively injured, ever again.” “In order to protect myself I must have absolutely all information.” “I must not lose my cool.” “I must not have a meltdown right now!” “Doctors must never again disrespect my feelings!” “He must understand what triggers are! He’s a helping professional – he should want to be helpful!” “All health professionals really should be trauma informed!” “If they do anything unethical it’s absolutely horrible – doctors must be ethical!” “It’s so horrible that doctors injure people! I think all doctors deserve to die!” In these thoughts we see overgeneralization (“all doctors”) thrown in with horribilization (“It’s horrible!”) and musterbation (“doctors should!”). Robot Suit is amplifying rage, hatred, violence and distress with its thoughts. This is a voluntary, although deeply habitual, use of the mind to create an exaggerated emotional response.
Thus, the two work together to exaggerate physical sensations and emotions. Dinosaur Suit uses the body and Robot Suit uses the mind to amp up and heighten reactions to the situation.
Robot-Dinosaur Feedback Loop
Here is this situation again broken out into steps of an actual feedback loop that leads to a downward spiral.
- There is a Trigger that Scares Dinosaur Suit. For example, I happen to smell a smell in the doctor’s office that is the exact smell I smelled during the trauma. Dinosaur Suit freaks out because it is thrown back into the dangerous situation and believes it’s being attacked and harmed again. It frantically pushes all buttons turning on everything needed to try to defend itself – fight, flight and freeze buttons are all pushed and all these systems come online. There is tension, shallow breathing, dizziness, shut down, maybe going blank mentally. Going into a kind of siege state, a survival focused state.
- Dinosaur Suit’s Bodily Sensations Prove Robot Suit’s Distorted Reality (optional step) Dinosaur Suit’s overreaction due to being thrown back into the traumatic experience due to triggers can easily lend credence to the exaggerated thoughts of the Robot Suit, making them more entrenched. In other words, Robot Suit has developed a thought habit – a commonly traveled synaptic sequence – to think it’s “horrible!” Doctors are “evil horrible people!” Robot Suit can gain some “proof” that his/her thought habit is true because anytime it goes near a doctor the body – Dinosaur Suit – feels flooded with horror, terror and other unpleasant sensations like choking, nausea, dizziness, difficulty breathing etc. “See, it’s true!” says Robot Suit. “They are horrible. Even Dinosaur Suit agrees with me.”
Note that Robot Suit can operate fine without any “proof” because Robot Suit is irrational and part of being irrational means there doesn’t have to be any proof for any of its thoughts. But offering proof to Robot Suit certainly doesn’t help things.
- Robot Suit Thinks A Cognitive Distortion About The Situation. The Robot Suit – the habit of distorted thinking – creates a demand like “I must solve this. This must NOT be.” By creating a demand, it adds a new threat on top of the threats that have been totally exaggerated by the Dinosaur Suit. The overall situation becomes even bigger and scarier than ever. Now it’s not just a threat to survival, it’s also a situation that is proving something is wrong with you, another person or life in general that MUST be fixed. Robot Suit generates scary judgments about you, others or the world. It’s like a demanding parent yelling, “YOU SHOULD DO XYZ!!!” God only knows what will happen if you don’t do it but you know in your shaking bones that it will be BAD. “WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS – HE SHOULD NOT DO THAT!!!” Robot Suit creates rage – on TOP of the rage already inside Dinosaur Suit. The mind creates rage on top of the pent up fight energy – all the rage – held in the muscles and nervous system of the body. Every time there is a “should” thought, it adds another layer of exaggerated fear and anger inside the body. This is the higher cognitive mind NOT helping out.
- Then The Robot Suit Creates Additional Unrelated Cognitive Distortions. These are musts and demands about things in life that are not related to this specific trauma reaction that is going on in this moment. They could have originated from something taught by parents, teachers, gurus, friends, society. They could include ideas like, “By the time you are 30 you should be doing XYZ”; “If you are not working out you are a failure in life.” The originally good edicts, goals or guidelines for life become cognitive distortions when you think, “I MUST do this – or it’s the end of the world! If I don’t do this – I’m a failure!”
These cognitive distortions can also have, at their core, needs that you want met and you are not getting met. Rather than witness and hold the need and seek alternative strategies (as is done in Nonviolent Communication), Robot Suit creates a demand around one particular strategy for meeting the need: “I must have my need for communication met by you in this way or I hate and despise you!” “I must have my need for understanding met by them in this way or the world is a horrible, terrible, unacceptable place!”
The Robot Suit basically creates a whole bunch of random additional threats that it throws at The Dinosaur Suit right in the midst of when Dinosaur Suit is already dealing with a bunch of threats from external environmental triggers AND threats from Robot Suit’s irrational demands about how it is reacting to those triggers. Robot Suit is agitating Dinosaur Suit about many things at once at the moment it’s most vulnerable. Cognitive distortions are agitating the reptilian brain/ nervous system that has already been damaged and thoroughly agitated by PTSD.
- Dinosaur Suit Becomes Alarmed by Robot Suit’s Thoughts and Freaks Out Even More. Dinosaur Suit’s own totally exaggerated LIFE or DEATH threat is not being addressed at all in any constructive manner. Dinosaur Suit on its own, given no help to cope or process what it’s experiencing, would have a tendency to go into a downward spiral of fear – even without Robot Suit around! Rather than being helped, or just left alone to drown, Dinosaur Suit is being harmed more – it’s being given twisted perceptions from the mind that make everything happening appear monumentally larger and scarier.
The cognitive distortions of Robot Suit have overwhelming power over Dinosaur Suit because Dinosaur Suit is just an impressionable reptile with no power of reasoning, so these distorted thoughts are TRUE to Dinosaur Suit. The images of badness and darkness are real to Dinosaur Suit. These dark thoughts give Dinosaur Suit a bunch more things to feel legitimately threatened by increasing the frightened, angry and frozen states in the body and layering on additional difficult feelings such as desperation, shame, embarrassment, anxiety and panic.
The thoughts that come from the Robot Suit likely further traumatize the poor nervous system and instinctive mind. Dinosaur Suit – which is inherently injured as it is symbolic of the nervous system after extreme trauma leading to PTSD – might get overwhelmed by the onslaught of mean, hurtful thoughts and never find the gentle path to recover into normal functionality.
Loop Continues Onwards
When Dinosaur Suit has even more of a meltdown – more confusion, distress, anger, paralysis – Robot Suit gets even more judgmental (back to #2), saying things like, “Calm down, why don’t you?” “What are you, a big wuss?” “After all this time of recovery you shouldn’t react like this.” “I must solve this, I’m such a weakling why can’t I find a solution?”
This Feedback Loop Can Become An Obsession
Then it just keeps going around the circle. If the feedback loop gets going strong enough it can lead to obsessive thinking, repetitive thinking and feeling that gets darker and darker over time. Obsessive thinking is a real doozy to try to figure out how to stop. In the very worst case obsessive thinking takes on a life of its own and leads to unfortunate actions like violence or self-harm.
The two “Suits” together may foment rage, terror and paralysis more than either alone would be capable of. It becomes a real frenzy between Dinosaur Suit and Robot Suit and the person inside is being taken for a huge ride.
The key to heal, I believe, is to give love to both things – give love to the part of the self that is reacting to the environment as a threat and is feeling frightened, angry or frozen, by talking with it and accepting it. And also doing somatic healing that “talks” to it with the body sensations not the mind.
Then also give love to the part of the self that wants good things but is demanding them so harshly and thinking irrationally and with distortions so as to create a lot of inner turmoil. Underneath all the crazy-making demands are universal human needs that just want to be acknowledged – and loved.
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.