What are automatic thoughts?
Some of our emotions might appear predictable in specific situations, yet others may be puzzling. At times we experience an emotion seemingly out of the blue, too strongly for what’s taking place, or in a way that doesn’t appear to match the situation at all. The important thing to understanding feelings is to get really good at pinpointing the thoughts connected with them. It is identifying automatic thoughts that I often help clients to do and then reduce anxiety that may result.
How to go about identifying automatic thoughts
Thoughts impact much of our experience of the world, including our emotional experience. In this article we will be referring to a particular kind of thoughts which we call “automatic thoughts.” Automatic thoughts are the thoughts that automatically occur in our thoughts during the day. Frequently, we are completely oblivious that we are even having thoughts. However with a little training and practice, you can learn to easily recognise them, and as a result, get a better handle on your state of mind and behaviours.
Our minds are really thought processing units, producing and sorting through as many as 60,000 ideas in a given day. If we were to attend to every one of these, we would be overloaded by the flood of information. Fortunately, that’s not how our brain functions. Most thoughts enter in and leave our minds completely outside of our awareness. The brain is pretty capable at filtering what it believes to be unimportant information and centring on what seems to be most salient. It does this by focusing on particular aspects of a situation, then assigning some sort of significance to those aspects, leading to our thoughts and viewpoints about issues.
This process works well most of the time, but occasionally we focus on less significant bits of information, filtering out the more pertinent parts. In other cases, we assign significance to something that isn’t totally grounded in the real facts of the situation.
Looking more closely at identifying automatic thoughts
For example take a pretty frequent experience, the job performance assessment. It’s not uncommon for people who have a mostly good performance evaluation to filter out most of the compliments and instead fixate on the one or two places that there’s room for improvement. We call this thought trend negative filtering, which means filtering out all but the negative information. In spite of the majority of the feedback being favourable, negative filtering might cause us to see the assessment as wholly negative. In turn, causing emotions of disappointment, depression, or anxiousness.
The above example shows a very common dynamic. Namely that automatic thoughts have the potential to trigger strong negative emotions. Generally, we are more conscious of the emotions themselves than the thoughts that cause them. However, in most instances it is the automatic thoughts that play the greatest part in determining exactly how we feel, not the situation itself.
Learning to examine these thoughts allows us to better comprehend and handle our emotions, modulating them before they get too intense or overwhelming.
Some examples of identifying automatic thoughts
Gemma received a work performance review in which 90% of the feedback was favourable, and 10% was somewhat unfavourable. Afterward, she found herself seething with anger, unable to focus, and eventually leaving early to have a drink at home.
Dan on the other hand, received the same exact feedback, and afterward found himself to be in a good mood the rest of the day. When it was time to go home, he decided to spend a little more time working on a presentation he would be giving the following month.
Now, there was no difference in the details given to these individuals, but there was a significant distinction in how they felt afterward. The crucial element to understanding their different responses is to look at their automatic thoughts. When we look to identifying automatic thoughts regarding the situation, we see that Gemma had the thoughts “I’m not valued here,” “My boss doesn’t really know what she’s talking about,” and “It’s useless even attempting to do a good job here with these idiots in charge.” Gemma probably had many other thoughts over the course of her hour-long interview. Yet, these are the ones her mind singled out as most significant, and as a result, annoyed and resentful and made the decision that she couldn’t finish or it wasn’t worth finishing the day of work.
On the other hand, Dan had thoughts of “It’s great to hear I’ve advanced at this,” “ She considers I’m doing pretty effectively in most areas,” and “I don’t have fantastic ratings across every area, but I did pretty well in many, and can definitely spend more time to improve my performance in the places that are lacking.” These thoughts enabled him to feel more positive emotions throughout the day, and significantly, to feel motivated to be more effective. The above cases spotlight the way thoughts affect our frame of mind and our actions.
Identifying automatic thoughts and thought styles
Automatic thoughts can actually take various forms. They can be verbal as shown in the examples above. Many people from time to time have automatic thoughts in the form of visuals. If we use the above case, Gemma might have had an image of herself spending so much time at her desk while her supervisor and colleagues were all wasting time away from work. Whatever the form automatic thoughts take, we can discover how to investigate them and identify their underlying meaning and their connection to our emotions and actions.
Identifying your common automatic thoughts
Some people find this skill challenging at first, but quickly catch on. The important thing when identifying automatic thoughts is to look for what comes to mind when an emotion appears.
Let take for example Beth. She had discovered on social media that one of her close friends, Richard, had a get-together with some friends and didn’t invite her. She immediately had a sensation of a pit in her tummy and determined that the emotion was sadness. In that moment she asked herself, “What is going through my thoughts?” She was able to identify the thoughts as follows:
- 1. Richard doesn’t really like me.
- 2. I’m never ever invited to anything.
- 3. No one really likes me.
Given the intense nature of these thoughts, an intense feeling of sadness is pretty easy to undestand. By writing out her true thoughts, however, Beth was able to process them differently and observe how extreme they had ended up. Even though she considered them to be true on one level, determining them and writing out her thoughts helped her to fully grasp where her feelings were coming from. The exercise also helped her see she was generating some pretty broad assumptions that she didn’t wholeheartedly believe. Afterward, she felt a little better, and some of her unhappiness was indeed lifted.
Identifying automatic thoughts and metacognition
This approach of identifying automatic thoughts as ‘thoughts’ is an illustration showing what is termed metacognition. Metacognition is the approach by which we develop a recognition and understanding of our thinking. As is the case in the illustration, simply becoming mindful of the thought process allows us to distance ourselves from our reflexive cognitive responses and re-evaluate them. It is hard to overstate how effective a tool this can be in identifying automatic thoughts and then shifting our feelings and behaviour.
At times it’s a little tough to identify a thought going through your mind. So, an additional way of identifying the automatic thought is to look for the meaning of the situation. In Beth’s instance, if she were unable to identify any obvious thoughts she might ask herself, “What does it mean to me that Richard didn’t invite me? Perhaps it’s that I’m worried no one likes me.” The thought “No one likes me,” is the hidden meaning her mind has designated to this event.
Another way of uncovering more hidden thoughts is to ask yourself, “What’s the worst part of this, and why?” Here the answer might be that Beth believes she never gets invited to anything, and that’s painful because she concludes that it means no one likes her.
Finally, if these methods don’t deliver you results, try to identify the emotion and then work backward. There are many reasons why different emotions arise. For instance, anger is usually a response to mistreatment of ourselves or someone we care about. Had Beth felt anger after seeing that Richard had not invited her to the get-together, she could have A) identified her anger, B) determined that it was probably a reaction to some perceived mistreatment, then C) formulated a thought involving being mistreated in the situation.
She might have uncovered the thought “Richard isn’t treating me as he should because I’ve always been a good friend to him.” By using the emotion as a clue, we can play detective in discovering the mystery of the missing automatic thought.
Identifying automatic thoughts using ‘The Thought Record’
A thought record is a tool you can use to clarify the thoughts responsible for unwanted feelings and behaviours. In this article you will be introduced to a basic thought record, which can help you develop your metacognitive ability.
Using a thought record is a skill that can help you identify and clarify the thoughts that are leading to more problematic emotions. By practicing identifying automatic thoughts in challenging situations, you develop and strengthen the skill of metacognition. With some practice, you can gain the ability to quickly identify dysfunctional automatic thoughts in the moment, and get some distance from them to lessen the intensity of your emotion. The button below links to an example of a completed thought record.
Instructions for Completing the Thought Record:
It’s best to complete a thought record about a difficult situation, or one in which you feel a lot of negative emotion. Thought records work best when they’re completed close to the event. It’s also helpful to have a little distance from the intensity of the situation so your thoughts aren’t completely clouded by overwhelming emotion. Complete the following steps to get the most out of the thought record:
1. Identify the situation in one sentence or less. Make sure you do so as objectively as possible without editorialising. For example: I said, “Hello” to Samantha, but she didn’t respond. Not: I said, “Hello” to Samantha but she ignored me because she hates me.
2. Skip to the Emotions column. It’s easier to identify emotions then work back to the thoughts. Identify any emotions you felt at the time. Don’t get emotions confused with thoughts. Emotions are one word, and are usually some synonym for joy, fear, sadness, disgust, or anger. Feel free to identify as many or as few emotions as are present at the time.
3. Rate the intensity of each emotion on a scale from 0-100. It’s not an exact science, so just go with your gut on this one.
4. Identify the thoughts running through your mind at the time. Thoughts can be words, full sentences, or images. If you have trouble remembering, consider each emotion you identified in the previous step, then work backwards to figure out what thoughts led to that emotion. Rate how much you believe each thought on a scale from 0-100.
5. Complete one of these each day. At the end of the week, you might find that you have the ability to gain a little distance from your thoughts in the heat of the moment. That is metacognition in action!
Complete at least three or four of these thought records before moving on to the next module. As indicated above, it’s best if you can fill one out each day, as the next few chapters build on your ability to complete a thought record well.
If you would like help to identifying automatic thoughts and reduce anxiety and stress, get in touch to see how hypnotherapy for anxiety could help you. Sessions are available online and face to face.