Has anyone ever asked you to say the very first thing that comes to mind?
“Don’t think about it too much”
“Just say it”
“What are you thinking right now? Go.”
We seem to believe that this quick and unedited version of our thoughts is closer to the truth.
In reality, our quickest and most easily accessible thoughts may be most suspect!
Here’s a radical idea: we shouldn’t believe everything we think.
Yes, this applies to those immediate thoughts too! The ones we believe more accurately mirror our internal states only because they occur quickly and are easier to access.
If your immediate thought this is “I have no idea what she is talking about”...stay tuned, I'm going to break it down.
This post will:
Provide some background info on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and automatic thoughts
Go over common cognitive distortions that can be found in automatic thoughts
Show you how to identify an automatic thought, evaluate it, and determine how true it really is for you
What Is An Automatic Thought?
An automatic thought is an instantaneous, habitual, and often unconscious thought that can affect the way we feel and act.
Automatic thoughts usually go unnoticed and therefore unchallenged. However, they are extremely powerful and influence our emotions and behaviour!
In fact, helping people to become aware of negative automatic thoughts and test whether they are valid is a central task of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
A Crash Course On Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a goal-oriented form of psychotherapy that helps you learn new ways of thinking and behaving. This can help manage feelings of anxiety and depression in the short-term and in the long-run too.
How is this possible? Let’s take a closer look.
Thoughts Cause Feelings
CBT follows a basic premise: thoughts cause feelings.
Many of our emotions are preceded by a thought, even if it is fleeting or unnoticeable.
With this in mind, CBT teaches us to examine and change our thoughts (also known as cognitions). In doing so, we can change our feelings and behaviours.
In other words, it is the interpretation of these events that influences our emotions.
In any situation, all three of these elements are present- thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. These all interact with and influence each other. Meaning if you change one, it can affect the other two.
A useful way to visualize this is a triangle.
Let's use an example that many of us can relate to.
The Situation: you come home looking forward to having the leftovers you saved yesterday. When you open the fridge, they are gone! Likely eaten by your partner who worked from home that day.
Thought: How could they do this??
Feelings: Anger, frustration, disappointment
Behaviour: Start a fight with your partner
Here is another one:
The Situation: You finish school or work early on a gorgeous sunny Friday afternoon
Thought: I have an entire day ahead to myself
Feelings: Joy, excitement, curiosity
Behaviour: You treat yourself to a little something on your way home
In both these scenarios, a thought led to a feeling which led to an action. The thought that starts kicks off the process is not always conscious. In fact most of the time, it is automatic and unconscious.
CBT therapists are trained to identify some common features of automatic thoughts, called Cognitive Distortions.
Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking our mind uses to convince us of things that are not necessarily true.
Without further examination or reflection, we are likely to believe them at face value.
Hence, you shouldn't believe everything you think!
Let's explore these cognitive distortions a little further.
As you read about them, try reflecting on which ones apply to your own experience.
I can identify at least 5 in myself. The key thing to remember here, is these are COMMON for a reason- we all experience them!
16 Common Cognitive Distortions
Mind-reading: You assume you know what people are thinking without evidence.
"She obviously thinks I'm not good enough."
Fortune-telling: You predict the future, often negatively
"I'm not going to get that job, it's not meant for me."
Catastrophizing: You assume that whatever will happen will be a disaster or the worst-case scenario
"I'm never going to get over this, it will ruin my life."
Labelling: You attach negative global traits to yourself and others
"I am simply not funny" or "He's a lost cause"
Negative-filtering: You focus almost exclusively on the negative, and rarely the positive
"There are so many people who are against me. None of them like me."
Overgeneralizing: You assume that a single negative incident is a pattern that applies to future incidents
"This happens to me all the time. There is no escaping it."
Personalizing: You assign a large portion of the blame onto yourself and struggle to see that others have a role as well
"Even though he shouldn't have done that, I could have prevented all this if I had acted earlier."
Dichotomous Thinking: You see people and situations in all-or-nothing terms
"This was a complete and total waste of time."
Blaming: You view other people as the primary source of your negative feelings and struggle to assume responsibility for your role in the situation
"My sister ruined my life" or "If only he didn't do that, my life could be complete different."
Unfair Comparisons: You compare yourself to standards that are not realistic or continuously focus on the people who are doing 'better' than you
"I will never be as successful as that person."
Emotional Reasoning: Your feelings determine how you interpret a situation
"I feel sad, therefore my relationship must not be working out."
Shoulds: You think of people and events in terms of how they should be, rather than how they are
"They should be able to do this, it's not that complicated."
Judgement Focus: You assign evaluations to people and situations as 'good' or 'bad' rather than viewing and accepting them as they are
"This completely and utterly sucks."
Regret Orientation: You fixate on what you could have done better in the past, rather than what you can do improve your present circumstances
"If only I didn't make that choice a few years ago, my life would be completely different today."
What If: You fixate on questions about 'what if' something happens and none of the answers are satisfying.
"What if I forget my lines? What if everyone laughs at me?"
Inability To Disconfirm: You reject evidence or arguments that challenge any negative thoughts.
"That's not the issue. There are other factors, it's not that simple."
How To Identify and Evaluate Your Automatic Thoughts
So far, we have identified some of the distortions in our automatic thoughts that make them so easy to believe.
The first step to unpacking your thoughts is identifying them.
Automatic thoughts don't announce themselves- they can be quite sneaky. So how do you spot them?
Identifying Automatic Thoughts
Multiple thoughts can cross our minds at any given moment.
However, an automatic thought is often related to a powerful feeling.
For example: the thought "I can't do anything" is related to feelings of sadness and frustration
Not every emotionally charged thought has to be challenged! However, many stressful thoughts can be re-framed as automatic thoughts.
For example: "Will I actually be able to get this job?" can be translated to the automatic thought "I won't get the job"
To further drive it home, automatic thoughts are related to strong emotions or even our core beliefs about ourselves.
How can we challenge these thoughts and ultimately influence our feelings and behaviours?
Evaluating Your Automatic Thought
These are guidelines on how to be curious about your automatic thoughts. Why is this important? Being curious and evaluating a thought interrupts its hold on our emotions and behaviours.
Is Your Automatic Thought A Fact Without Meaning?
Example: "My partner is late."
If yes, ask yourself what this means for you, others, or your future
Is Your Thought A Question?
If yes, answer it.
Example: "What if I fail?"
Think about what you think might be the fallout from failing. Answering the question will allow you to understand what exactly you are afraid of and what that outcome means to you.
Is Your Thought A 'Should' Statement?
Example: "This should be easier for me."
What are you assuming about the situation? Are you being too hard on yourself?
Other Helpful Questions To Evaluate Thoughts
Here are some other useful prompts to help you get down to the roots of your thoughts:
What does this say about me if it is true?
What does this mean for my life and future?
What am I afraid might happen?
What is the worst thing that could happen if this was true?
What does this mean about how other people may think of me or how they feel about me?
What images of memories do I have in this situation?
Is this thought familiar? When else has it come up?
Building A Case For Your Thoughts
You've identified the automatic thought that is leading to some powerful feelings. And because you identified it, you were able to hit the pause button and be curious about it.
Now, you can build a case for AND against your automatic thought.
Try this: List the evidence that supports your thought. What evidence do you have that this is true?
When you are done, do the opposite. List the evidence against the thought. What proof do you have that it is not true?
Let's try this with an example.
"I am not good enough to get this job"
Evidence that supports the thought:
- I haven’t gotten every job I interviewed for
- According to the job description alone, I am under-qualified
- I always feel like this before an interview
Evidence that challenges the thought:
- I came prepared for this interview
- I have a lot of skills to offer and I can learn what I do not know
- My other employers have spoken highly of me and thought I was good enough
At the end of this process, you can examine evidence from both sides and decide if it's possible to come up with a balanced thought.
Our thoughts have a lot of influence on our feelings and behaviour. Next time you are experiencing a strong emotion, jot down the automatic thoughts you are experiencing.
Using the methods we outlined in this blog to explore the roots of your automatic thoughts is something you can practice at home or with the guidance of a therapist.
Remember- not everything we think about ourselves is necessarily true!
Have you noticed the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in your life?
Until next time!