Envision this: You are walking down the street and notice an acquaintance look your way and say something to the person they’re with. An immediate thought pops into your head, “they must be saying horrible things about me.” This can lead to feelings of anxiety, worry, and stress, which a minute before you were not feeling. This situation is an example of what can occur when we experience an automatic thought. We all experience these kinds of thoughts, which happen automatically and frequently in response to triggers in our environment. However, not all automatic thoughts are negative or unhelpful. For example, if you’re walking to your car late at night, you may feel extra cautious due to the late hour and being alone. Your thoughts may involve concern that someone will approach you, and potentially harm you. This can be an automatic trigger for you to walk faster, and to be extra alert of your surrounding environment. Although some automatic thoughts may be helpful, automatic negative thoughts can become problematic if they persist, especially for those struggling with anxiety and/or depression.
Theory behind automatic thoughts
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a theory which helps us to examine automatic thoughts, with a primary goal being to help identify dysfunctional cognitions, and find ways to challenge existing unhelpful thinking styles (AATBS, 2017). CBT is helpful for people to understand the relationship between events, thoughts, and behaviours. Rather than focusing on uncontrollable, external factors, CBT helps to shift the focus onto the individual, and to highlight that although they do not have control over external events, they do have control over their responses to a situation. Going back to our first example, it could be possible the acquaintance you made eye contact with was already mid conversation and coincidentally glanced in your direction. Considering other possibilities is an opportunity for clients to bring the focus and control back to themselves. The objective is to challenge the negative thought, consider additional possibilities, and reassess the power the original thought had. CBT is a process of evaluation and can be beneficial for a multitude of presenting concerns. Explaining CBT may appear easy; however, this is a process which takes time and practice. CBT can range from basic to very complex depending on the concerns clients present with in therapy.
Types of unhelpful thoughts
There are a variety of names for unhelpful thoughts such as: distorted thinking, irrational thinking, and unhelpful cognitions. A common thought clients discuss is the belief that they “should” or “must” have done things a certain way. This type of thinking creates the irrational belief in people that an event would have gone a particular way had they done things differently. For example, an anxious student presents with the belief that they SHOULD have studied 10 additional hours per week, and then they would have achieved a better grade on their exam. This type of thinking rules out additional possibilities for the grade such as: poor sleep the night before, exam anxiety, illness, a difficult exam, etc. Rather than considering external factors, this individual has spent the day ‘shoulding’ all over themself. The truth is we will never know the outcomes of ‘what-ifs.’ We can only focus on the actual outcomes, learn from them, and move on from there.
We need tremendous kindness and awareness about our automatic thoughts in order to change them. One recommendation is to seek the better feeling thought. Does it make sense to beat yourself up over something outside of your control, or to remind yourself that you are human & continuing to grow and learn. If you find yourself struggling with persistent negative thinking, consider CBT and see if it may be the right type of therapy for you.