Everyone has automatic thoughts. They are thoughts that seem to just pop into your mind without any effort on your part. Most of the time the thought occurs so quickly you don’t even notice it but it has an impact on your emotions. Interestingly, it is usually the emotion that you notice rather than the thought.
Often these automatic thoughts are distorted in some way but we usually don’t stop to question the validity of the thought. Sometimes our thoughts are exaggerated, sometimes they are self-defeating, sometimes they reflect our worst fears or insecurities, and sometimes they are not as fair or balanced as they could be.
Gaining greater self-awareness of these automatic thoughts is an opportunity to challenge some of these thoughts, gain a different perspective of the given situation and perhaps most importantly change how we feel by changing the way we think.
Let's look at an example:
Situation - Sam's girlfriend, Anne, hasn't responded to the voicemail he left yesterday.
Automatic thoughts - She is angry at me. She is going to break up with me. She is ignoring me.
Feelings - Sad, anxious.
In this example, Sam has jumped to a conclusion without really knowing the facts of the situation. He is feeling sad and anxious, and perhaps needlessly so. Now let's challenge Sam's automatic thoughts…
Evidence for this thinking - The last time Anne was angry with me she didn't return my phone call.
Alternative thoughts - Anne must have had a really busy day and hasn't had a chance to call me back yet. Anne's phone battery has died so she hasn't received my message yet.
By being aware of his automatic thoughts, Sam has been able to challenge them which gives him a different perspective, one that alters his feelings and behaviour.
Situation - Sarah applied for a promotion at work but didn't get the new role.
Automatic thoughts - I am useless. I am never going to get promoted. My work doesn't appreciate me.
Feelings - Angry, Worthless, Disappointed.
Evidence for this thinking - None.
Alternative thoughts - There must have been a good reason I didn't get the role, I will talk with the recruiting manager to understand the areas I need to develop to get a role like this in the future. There must be a better job out there for me.
Learning to monitor your thoughts, and challenge them when they do not best serve you, is an important aspect of improving your wellness. That may sound a bit strange at first, but it is true, we can actually improve our mood by modifying our automatic thoughts. It does take practice to develop this self-awareness therefore I recommend using a Thought Diary to assist you getting into the practice.
Automatic thoughts are a way of life, however, what we choose to do with them is up to us. Remember, thoughts become things, therefore choose the good ones!