Uncovering Automatic Thoughts

We all know someone who just always seems to have a negative outlook on everything. No matter how good things seem to be going, they have a way of anticipating that something bad will happen soon. Maybe that someone in your life is you. No matter how hard you try, you feel that things just aren’t going the way you want them to. Or if they’re going well, it just doesn’t seem to be good enough. Are you often feeling anxious and worried about things that have not yet happened or may not happen at all?

Your thoughts have the power to shape the way you feel about everything in your life. The way in which you interpret life experiences has a much greater effect than the experiences themselves. We all have automatic thoughts and respond to those thoughts without even recognizing the power we give them. These thoughts are our initial thoughts that come to mind whenever we experience something. There’s a strong relationship between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. This is referred to as the ABC model of thinking.

A (Activating Event) → B (Beliefs or thoughts about the event) → C (Consequences which are our emotional and behavioral responses)

Here’s a helpful example:

A (event): You get in the car to leave for work and the vehicle doesn’t start.

B (thoughts about the event): This is the worst possible thing that could happen right now. My day is ruined now because of this!

C (response to thoughts): You now feel anxious, angry or sad.

So the event is one thing and by itself meaningless. Let’s also not forget that more often than not, they are also not within our control. Your thoughts, on the other hand, you can control. You can choose to have thoughts that are helpful, productive and will enable you to cope more effectively with difficult situations. This requires you to do a few things.

1) You need to be intentional in your thinking. You first must recognize your automatic thoughts for what they are. Ask yourself if the thoughts you’re having are accurate. Just because you’re thinking it doesn’t mean it’s true.

2) Once you are able to identify your thoughts, examine the evidence. Is there sufficient evidence to support your thinking? In the above example, thinking that because an unexpected event like not being able to start your car has occurred, automatically means your entire day is now ruined. Try to avoid fortune telling or making assumptions. Recall if you’ve had other similar circumstances occur before and what was the outcome. Were you ever late to work before because of an unexpected event? Were you somehow able to salvage the day and it turned out better than expected?

3) Think in shades of grey. Ask yourself if what you’re thinking and feeling is the worst possible thing ever. Will this matter tomorrow, next month, a year from now? Our reactions to things can sometimes be bigger than the thing itself. Separate the event from what you’re feeling so you can re-align your thoughts to fit what is actually happening. Instead of interpreting things as either good or bad, view them in shades of grey. Things don’t always have to be either a complete success or a total disaster. Think about your experience as a partial success and an opportunity to learn and grow.

4) Look for solutions. Once you make note of what the problem is don’t stay there. Focus on solving the problem instead of using up your energy ruminating about it. If the problem hasn’t actually occurred, work on de-catastrophizing. Ask yourself, how likely is it for this event to occur and how awful would it truly be if it did happen? What’s the best case scenario? Just supposing the worst did happen, how would you cope and what would you like to hear to reassure you? Answering these questions can help you work through some realistic ways of preparing for the worst without catastrophizing and automatically thinking negatively.

Gaining control over your thoughts is a process and takes lots of practice but it does get easier. If you’re struggling with this, don’t hesitate to reach out to a counselor who is trained in techniques that can help you master your anxiety.

Kerri-Anne Brown

Kerri-Anne Brown

Hi, I'm Kerri-Anne and I'm a licensed mental health counselor in Orlando, FL. I help individuals and couples who are suffering from infertility, perinatal loss, complicated birth (birth trauma) and postpartum issues. Please feel free to reach out anytime.

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