Automatic Thoughts: How to identify and fix them
The Impact of Negative, Habitual Thinking
The vast majority of people have significant control over their day-to-day thought processes. This means that they can choose what they think about and how they think about it. However, everyone also experiences automatic thoughts. These thoughts do not fall under your conscious control. Instead, they operate at a more immediate, unconscious level.
Automatic thoughts may be positive and act as a support for sound mental health. However, they may also have a negative impact on your mental health. Negative automatic thoughts can help lay the groundwork for some of the world’s most common mental illnesses. They can also help sustain those illnesses over time. Fortunately, a form of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, can help you overcome such thoughts.
A Guide to Automatic Thoughts
Every day, the average person experiences an untold number of thoughts. We are conscious of some of this thinking, and can direct it to at least some degree. However, much of our thinking occurs outside of conscious control. This makes sense from a survival standpoint. Why? If you had to think your way through every aspect of daily life, the information overload would be staggering. It would be difficult or impossible to function while trying to micromanage such a huge task.
To avoid this possibility, all people rely heavily on automatic thoughts. These thoughts do not require us to directly oversee them. Instead, they occur instantaneously and on their own. As you move from childhood to adulthood, your repertoire of automatic thoughts grows. Thoughts that once had to be consciously considered now appear as a matter of habit. In other words, they become part of your daily routine. Because they are habitual and routine, automatic thoughts are also known as routinized thoughts.
Although they are out of your conscious control, these thoughts have a tremendous impact on your conscious life. They not only influence your conscious thought processes. They also influence:
- Your typical mood
- How you feel about yourself and the world around you
- The actions you take on any given day
Depending on the nature of each thought, its impact on your well-being may be positive or negative.
Identifying Automatic Thoughts
If automatic thoughts are unconscious, can they be identified? Yes. It is possible to uncover at least some of your typical thought patterns. You may be able to do this on your own. However, you may also need an outside observer to help point them out to you. Negative examples of some automatic thinking include such things as:
- This is too hard for me
- No one wants to talk to me
- There is no chance that I can accomplish that
- I could never change that
- I am not worth it
In contrast, positive examples of automatic thinking may include:
- I can do this
- There is a way to reach this goal
- Let me find a way to work out this problem
- I can learn how to change
- I am worth the effort and attention
These are just a few positive and negative possibilities. Each person has their own complex patterns of automatic thinking. These patterns build up over a lifetime help define the nature of your personal reality.
Dangers of Automatic Negative Thoughts
Everyone is affected by a mixture of positive and negative automatic thoughts. For any given person, the impact of these thoughts and their emotional connections can be profound. As a rule, people with a high ratio of positive thoughts tend to feel emotionally well and healthy. On the other hand, people with a high ratio of negative thoughts may feel much more emotionally unwell.
Negative thoughts have this effect because they can lead to cognitive distortions. Experts use this term to describe thoughts that are highly affected by your emotional state. Potential examples of cognitive distortions include:
- Seeing everything as being either completely good or completely bad
- Treating daily disappointments as if they were major catastrophes
- Not taking positive thoughts seriously
- Making negative assumptions without exploring any further
- Emphasizing your problems and deemphasizing your successes
- Labeling yourself and/or others in negative terms
- Consistently prioritizing emotions over rational thinking
- Viewing all imperfections as failures
These kinds of distortions are usually extreme. Over time, they can reinforce themselves and create a cascade of negative, automatic thinking.
One potential consequence of this process is serious mental illness. In fact, negative thoughts are known for their role in a range of such illnesses, including:
- Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Specific phobia
They also play a significant role in drug and alcohol addiction.
CBT and Identifying Automatic Thoughts
Cognitive behavioral therapy is used in the treatment of many kinds of mental health issues. It is also used in the treatment of substance problems. CBT focuses on the harmful connection between distorted thinking and psychological problems. People taking part in this therapy learn how to identify the specific negative thought patterns affecting them. You also learn how to:
- Reexamine those thoughts from a more realistic perspective
- Identify harmful patterns of behavior that stem from negative thoughts
- Understand why negative thoughts and behaviors occur
- Replace negative thoughts and behaviors with health-supporting alternatives
- Develop coping skills for avoiding negative thought cascades in daily life
- Improve your sense of control over your emotions, thoughts and actions
There are multiple forms of CBT. Each one can help you in its own way. One potential option is cognitive processing therapy. This therapy helps you work through negative, automatic thoughts and emotions by gradually modifying them. You may also benefit from prolonged exposure therapy. This therapy exposes you to emotionally stressful situations in a controlled setting. Over time, this progressive process helps defuse the thoughts and emotions underlying those situations.
A third form of CBT is stress inoculation therapy. This therapy gets its name because it treats negative thinking as a contagious process similar to a disease. It seeks to protect you from such thinking in the same way that a vaccine protects against a virus.
Cultivating Positive Thoughts in Treatment
CBT not only helps you escape negative patterns of automatic thinking. At the same time, it helps you cultivate positive thought patterns. As you make progress in treatment, your ratio of positive to negative thoughts will typically begin to shift. And with the increase in positive thinking, there is a good chance that your overall outlook will start to change. Along with other aspects of your recovery, the end result may be substantial symptom relief.
Other Means of Controlling Automatic Thoughts
In addition to formal treatment, there are other options that can help you control negative, automatic thoughts. Two possible forms of help include peer support groups and healthy thinking tools.
Peer support groups are also known as self-help groups or mutual self-help groups. They bring together people affected by similar conditions who have similar shared experiences. Groups designed for people recovering from mental illness offer a number of research-backed benefits, including:
- Less involvement in self-stigmatizing negative thoughts
- An improved ability to function socially
- A higher overall quality of life
- A greater sense of agency and self-empowerment
Healthy thinking tools are methods intended to encourage mental habits that promote wellness. Many of these tools place an emphasis on positive thinking. Potential methods that can help you think more positively include:
- Evaluating your thoughts and feelings throughout the day
- Identifying specific thought patterns you want to work on
- Making a habit of talking to yourself in positive terms
- Getting plenty of exercise, rest and healthy food
- Establishing a support network of like-minded friends and loved ones
If you are not affected by mental illness, these tools may help you avoid future problems. In one way or another, they are also likely to play a role in treatment for diagnosable illnesses.
An Opportunity for New Thinking at Emerald Isle
Everyone experiences both positive and negative automatic thoughts. In everyday circumstances, you are likely unaware of them. However, they constantly operate in the background of your mental reality. Positive habitual thinking is strongly associated with mental wellness. In contrast, negative habitual thinking is associated with poor mental health and mental illness. Virtually all of America’s most common mental illnesses are linked to negative, automatic thoughts. These thoughts are also linked to all forms of substance abuse and substance addiction.
With professional help, you can overcome the negative thinking associated with mental illness and substance problems. Effective treatment comes in many forms. One of the most widely used and helpful options is cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT helps you identify damaging thoughts and change them for the better. In this way, it also helps eliminate the underlying support for a variety of mental illness and addiction symptoms. Healthy thinking tools and peer support may also help in important ways. Need help overcoming negative, automatic thoughts? Contact the experts at Emerald Isle today. We offer a full slate of treatment options for people affected by mental illness. We provide the same exemplary level of service for people affected by drug or alcohol problems. No matter the seriousness of your condition, we are fully committed to supporting your return to well-being. Call us today for more details on your available options for a customized recovery plan.
- American Psychological Association: APA Dictionary of Psychology – Automatic Thoughts
- Mayo Clinic: Stress Management – Positive Thinking: Stop Negative Self-Talk to Reduce Stress
- University of Michigan – Michigan Medicine: Cognitive Therapy Skills; Pages 3.5, 3.9, 3.10
- Behavioural Brain Research: Impaired Control in Addiction Involves Cognitive Distortions and Unreliable Self-Control, Not Compulsive Desires and Overwhelmed Self-Control
- American Psychological Association – Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Peers Supporting Recovery From Mental Health Conditions
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