Automatic Thoughts and CBT
Many of the thoughts we have over the course of the day are automatic thoughts. Or, thoughts that happen out of our awareness. It’s important to note, however, that out of our awareness does not mean unimpactful, as automatic thoughts still have a significant impact on how we feel and how we behave. We have automatic thoughts because there’s so much stimulation around us that it would be easy for our brains to become overwhelmed if we weren’t able to take mental shortcuts. Even though these automatic thoughts can help us to be faster and more efficient, they can become problematic if they are inaccurate, unrealistic or unhelpful. So, there is an important connection between our automatic thoughts and CBT.
What is CBT?
CBT stands for cognitive behavioural therapy and CBT is based on the very well-supported principles that how we think, feel and act influence one another. Therefore by changing how we think or act, we can change how we feel.
CBT is not about brainwashing or rewiring our thinking. It’s also not about positive or excessively optimistic thinking. It’s about realistic thinking.
Read more in-depth about CBT and what it is in our other article if you want to learn more.
Automatic Thoughts and CBT
When we pay attention to our thoughts, we recognize unhelpful thinking patterns, and can then revise and refine those thinking patterns in ways that enhance our resiliency and improve our well-being.
Researchers have identified a number of predictable thinking traps that all of us can fall prey to, especially when we are under stress. These thinking traps, and our negative automatic thoughts, tend to have a ripple effect which can impact our emotional and mental well-being in significant ways.
10 common thinking traps:
- All-or-nothing thinking: Thinking in extremes. For example, something is either 100% good or 100% bad.
- Overgeneralization: Seeing a pattern based upon one single event.
- Mental filtering: Only paying attention to certain types of evidence. For example, discluding evidence, i.e. ‘that doesn’t count’.
- Discounting the positive: Discounting positive information or twisting a positive into a negative.
- Jumping to conclusions: Attempting to mind read or predict the future.
- Magnification: Making a problem seem much worse than it actually is.
- Emotional reasoning: Assuming that because we feel a certain way, our hunch must be true.
- Should statements: Making demanding statements using words like ‘should’, ‘must’, and ‘ought’.
- Labelling: Assigning labels to ourselves of others. For example; ‘I’m stupid’.
- Personalization and blame: Taking too much or too little responsibility.
When we fall prey to these thinking traps they tend to have a negative impact on our psychological health and wellness because they can create an automatic cycle of negative thinking that adds to our overall level of stress. Identifying and learning to recognize these thinking traps is the first step in disrupting the thought pattern.
Why do automatic thoughts matter?
Negative automatic thoughts tend to have a ripple effect which can impact our emotional and mental well-being in significant ways.
What is the ripple effect of our thoughts?
First, we have automatic thoughts, which are designed to help us increase mental efficiency. But, sometimes, these automatic thoughts are negative.
Then, negative automatic thoughts lead to more cognitive distortions or thinking traps.
When we consistently repeat negative thoughts and distortions in our minds, which can happen automatically as the cycle gets going, this negative thinking impacts our mood, leading to stress and anxiety.
And when combined with other stressors in our life, these negative mood changes can lead to increased stress and more serious psychological health symptoms.
Because this ripple effect can become automatic and magnifies our experience of negative thoughts by impacting our level of stress, it’s important to break the cycle of negative thinking. Know that it isn’t always going to be easy – but investing time into being aware of our thoughts and into changing them will have a positive ripple effect on our mood.
How to manage automatic thoughts with CBT
- The first step to effectively manage automatic thoughts is to recognize them. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the most common cognitive distortions and determine which you find yourself most prone to.
- Then, before you attempt to make changes it can be helpful to note, over several days, of how often you notice yourself falling into these thinking patterns. It can also be helpful to note how you feel after, to assess the impact of these thoughts.
- The next step is to challenge the thoughts. When you catch yourself having these thoughts take a step back to gain some perspective. Ask yourself: What is the evidence that supports this negative thought? Note: if the only evidence you have to support these thoughts is from the past, consider whether or not that actually still applies to this new scenario.
- Then replace the thought with an alternative that is more neutral based on the evidence.
Here’s an example: You have a big project presentation coming up at work and you think, ‘I am definitely going to mess this up’. There may be some evidence for and against this thought. Maybe you’ve made mistakes at work in the past, or you feel you don’t have strong skills as a presenter. But at the same time, realistically the project has been in collaboration with others who have supported you, you’ve worked hard on it, and have practiced for the presentation and gotten feedback. You’re as prepared as you can be and you’re knowledgeable about the topic.
So, instead of allowing your thoughts to convince yourself you’re going to ‘mess this up’, tell yourself ‘I’ve made mistakes, but in general, I work very hard’ or ‘I’ve gotten good feedback so far and my manager trusts me to do this’.
Some of our thoughts are automatic, yet still impact our emotions and our overall mood. Though, when we pay attention to our thoughts, we can recognize unhelpful thinking patterns, and then revise and refine those thinking patterns in ways that enhance our resiliency and improve our well-being. Often these negative thinking patterns fall into some common thinking traps and understanding these thinking traps can help us to better understand our own thinking patterns, which is the first step in making changes to our automatic thoughts.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based practice that can help us to improve our well-being by changing our thinking. All of the clinicians at Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych. & Associates are trained in CBT and can help you to make changes to your automatic thinking.
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