We have a lot of thoughts throughout our day.
Thousands upon thousands of thoughts per day flood our minds – decisions to be made, tasks that require deep consideration, relationships to navigate – that can be exhausting!
It’s not a wonder why our brains try and make some of those thoughts automatic. This can be a very helpful thing. Automatic thoughts are created when our brains deem it necessary to create a highly efficient mental process so that we don’t have to put in the grunt work.
Maybe a neighbor bumps you on the sidewalk as you’re rushing to work – without even thinking about it, your brain tells you that they didn’t see you coming. Your brain is automatically doing all the work for this little interaction. That means that you don’t have to put in the time and energy to think about their motivations or what you need to do next – your brain has made that decision for you. Sometimes these are helpful and let us focus on the things we want to focus on in our lives. Sometimes, however, these cause serious hindrances in our lives.
Remember that neighbor who bumped you earlier? Let’s look at an automatic thought that might be unhelpful and distracting:
You feel a bump on the sidewalk, and immediately your brain decides that the one who bumped you definitely saw you coming and just thought that you deserved a little shove. Maybe they’re an angry person and really couldn’t stand the fact that you were going on your merry way with a smile on your face. In fact, that person might just be a bad person, and now you make it a point to ignore them whenever you see them – whether on the sidewalk the next day or at the neighborhood barbeque that week. Suddenly, through one innocuous bump on the sidewalk, there is a feeling of resentment and frustration throughout your day.
This is an example of an automatic thought gone rogue. Automatic thoughts can get in the way of a genuine interaction and may even ruin our day.
So, what do we do about them?
Although automatic thoughts happen without us even realizing it, we can learn to identify them and begin to replace them with more helpful, positive automatic thoughts.
Let’s be clear, automatic thoughts can be difficult to identify, but once you get the hang of it, you can become skilled in the art. The first step is to identify when a strong emotion arises, and then we want to identify the thought that precedes that emotion.
Let’s go back to the incident on the sidewalk. Once the bump occurs, maybe the immediate emotion that follows is a deep feeling of resentment. Knowing that this resentment will linger throughout the day, you decide that you should take an objective look at what caused it.
“Well,” you might say, “My neighbor bumped me on purpose because they are an angry person – always have been.”
Now that this first step is done – the recognition of the thought that precedes the emotion – you can begin to question that thought.
“Has my neighbor always been angry? Now that I think about it, they’ve always been nice to me,” you might think. “Is it possible that they didn’t see me? I suppose they were on their phone, not paying attention to where they were going.”
This is the beginning of the process of identifying negative automatic thoughts.
The next step is to replace that automatic thought. This could be as simple as reminding yourself that what happened could have been an accident. Don’t be discouraged if your automatic thought isn’t gone after the first time you identify it and try to replace it! This process takes time. It is very normal for this thought to continue to occur. Give yourself grace and remember that automatic thoughts are our brains’ attempt at helping and protecting us. Keep identifying and keep replacing!
Talk to your therapist about your automatic thoughts!
Therapists will gladly help you identify your automatic thoughts and get to the root of them.
It can be extremely helpful to talk about them with professional help – you don’t have to do this by yourself. We may have dozens of these negative automatic thoughts to work through, so the sooner we get to work, the better!