Automatic thoughts can be both positive and negative, while some thoughts can help us while negative automatic thoughts lead to restricted ways of thinking and acting often blocking the path to our goals
Thousands of thoughts occur to us each day, helping us make sense of what happens around us. Constantly judging, predicting and trying to make life simpler. Very often these thoughts get us into trouble. For someone who is a little shy, an automatic thought might tell him “do not talk to that girl, she will find you awkward”
For most of our lives, we believe what they tell us. though helpful at times, manipulative thoughts tend to restrict our lifestyle and often keep us from reaching our full potential.
We never question their validity we tend to accept them as who we are, staying within the limits of where our automatic thoughts take us. They repeat over and over again that they seem like facts, but they are not.
They will lead us to act in ways that hamper with our goals and restrict our lives. If we are able to challenge our automatic thoughts and act in a way that leads us to our goals, we are teaching our brain to provide us with more enabling positive automatic thoughts (“you can do it” “don’t worry about it”, Rather than the restrictive negative ones ( “you are bad at this” “you don’t deserve this”).
Automatic thoughts arise from, a range of factors that include.
– Past experience.
– Present emotional state.
– Rules and assumptions that we hold.
– Our beliefs about ourselves and the world.
– Our level of knowledge about certain subjects.
– Our personality
The list can go on and on!
Automatic thoughts are simply electrochemical impulses in our brain. They are “predictions ” based on past experience and a host of other factors, designed to make our lives easier.
They have not verified facts and will often lead us into trouble if we assume that they are always true.
An example of an automatic thought
Ramesh is a 32-year-old software professional, he has always had trouble with some social situations such as meetings and conferences. One day, his manager calls him into the office and asks him to make a presentation for the client just prior to his on-site visit. Ramesh is technically strong but has always had trouble with public speaking.
His automatic thought – “You are screwed – You are going to falter and fail miserably, the client is going to think you are a fool”
Ramesh now has two options, believe that his automatic thoughts are true and try to avoid the presentation or dread it like the world was coming to an end. This wouldn’t make him very comfortable. The more adaptive option would be to question the veracity of his automatic thoughts.
“Great opportunity – This is a chance to impress the clients – You can do this, a piece of cake – Yes, presentations aren’t your forte, but this one could be different” – These are thoughts that other people may have when faced with a similar situation.
Thus automatic thoughts are mere “predictions”, your brain trying to simplify your decision making. These oversimplified predictions are often false and lead to unnecessary distress. The first step in getting rid of distressing behaviors and emotions (anger/sadness/a need for control/fears/limitations/shyness/low self-esteem etc.) is to identify these automatic thoughts and see where they take you.
Challenging automatic thoughts with experiments –
If Ramesh chose to challenge is automatic thought – Chose to make a presentation -> Present it to his clients rather than avoiding it.
He will learn one of two things –
- The presentation went well and his brain was giving him wrong info.
- He stumbled through the presentation, but the clients did appreciate his technical strength and seemed satisfied. – He identified areas to improve himself.
If Ramesh tried to escape or avoid the presentation because of his “automatic thought”
- He would never know what he is afraid of.
- His fear of public speaking would increase, hampering his personal and occupational growth.
Another example –
Mrs. S is a shy woman. She hates parties and social interactions. At a party, her brain tells her “You look so awkward” “people are judging you”
If Mr.S tried to escape or avoid the party because of her “automatic thoughts”
- She would believe that she was awkward.
- She would believe that people are judgemental.
- She would obviously continue to hate parties and social interactions because of the above.
Realistically, her thoughts exist only in her mind. People might not really find her awkward or judge her. But to Mrs. S these thoughts become facts, her brain collects misinterpreted evidence to prove itself right. These thoughts thus become “very real” despite the lack of any objective evidence to prove the same.
Over time Mrs. S will start believing that she is awkward, people are judgemental and will have fear of social interactions that will restrict her life in many ways!
What would you rather do ? be stuck with your restrictive thoughts, or would you junk them in search of a happier, calmer you ? – Your choice !