Thursday, 20 October 2011

Therapy Thursday: Automatic Thoughts

  Last week's post discussed the notion that 'what fires together wires together.' If we want to change our minds and our lives, the key is to challenge and replace our habitual, default ways of thinking and behaving. We become who we want to be through practice. Instead of remaining stuck in a rut, we choose a new path, and deliberately walk that path until it becomes our reality. This is not wishful thinking: it is backed up by hard science. Today's post builds directly upon this foundation.
Researchers estimate that the average person has around 60,000 thoughts per day. Most of these thoughts – some 90% in fact – remain just below the level of awareness. We have no conscious control over them, and do not even realize that we are thinking them. These are known as automatic thoughts. We are continually talking to ourselves in our heads, trying to make sense of our world, looking for patterns, dangers and vulnerabilities. In the past, this feature of the human brain undoubtedly had great survival value. In today's world, however, our overactive, over-critical minds can be their own worst enemy. Many, if not most, psychological problems begin with negative, self-sabotaging automatic thoughts that can be self-fulfilling prophecies. We doubt ourselves, our self-doubt causes us to fail, and our failure reinforces our self-doubt.
In the West, we tend to mistrust our emotions. What we don't realize is that those emotions are almost always preceded and provoked by our thoughts: automatic thoughts which we don't even realize we're thinking. The emotions, in fact, are very useful: like toothache, they alert us to the fact that something is happening that requires our attention. They nag us to change what is not working for us.
Here's an example. I once knew someone who couldn't help talking his thoughts out loud. It was very useful for me, as I got to hear all his automatic thoughts. He'd be alone in his room, talking to himself about some neutral subject, then would start to complain about how no-one ever listens to his point of view, how they don't respect him, how they gang up on him and laugh behind his back, and so on. Most of this was untrue, but after about ten minutes of ruminating he will have whipped himself into a seething rage. Those of us who don't talk our thoughts out loud would most likely find ourselves in such a rage, and wonder how we got there. Or we might find ourselves feeling frustrated, sad, lonely, depressed, anxious, bitter, jealous, overwhelmed, afraid. And wonder why. The answer is clear: Automatic Thoughts!
Going Deeper
I end up addressing automatic thoughts with almost every client I see, because they are so pervasive. Almost all of us have developed the habit of repeating to ourselves nasty little messages that sabotage our plans, crush our self-esteem, feed our insecurities, and leave us feeling unhappy and inadequate. These automatic thoughts might be constant, or might appear as a reaction to particular situations. Either way, the steps for dealing with them are as follows:
  1. Identify your negative automatic thoughts. This is not always easy, because, by definition, they tend to remain below the level of awareness. You have to be vigilant, watchful, and hunt those thoughts down. Your emotions can help you. If you find yourself feeling angry, sad, frustrated etc, try to identify what you were thinking before the emotion arrived.
  2. Once you identify an automatic thought, write it down using the very words you say to yourself in your head, such as 'Matt, you're such a loser!' or 'You'll never get it right!' or 'No-one's gonna read your stupid blog anyway!' Try to identify 5 to 10 thoughts that come up again and again, perhaps in slightly different forms.
  3. Argue with those thoughts. The chances are, they're just plain untrue. At best, they're highly skewed generalizations. If you're saying 'You never do anything right!', look at the evidence as honestly and objectively as you can. Think about all the things you have done right. Clearly the voice in your head is unreliable.
  4. For every negative automatic thought, write down a more positive, more truthful alternative. Such as 'most of the time I do things well, and when I make mistakes I learn from them'.
  5. Continue to practice being watchful for automatic thoughts. Having identified them and written down the very words they use, it should become increasingly easy to recognize them when they arise. When you catch one, MAKE IT STOP! You could say STOP! out loud, say it loudly in your head, or visualize a red stop sign. Whatever works.
  6. Once you've identified and stopped the automatic thought, replace it with your positive, realistic alternative. Again, you could say this out loud, or say it in your head. The important thing is to do so consistently.
Some people are originally suspicious of this method. They confuse it with the kind of happy-clappy affirmations that fill the worst kind of self-help book. This is untrue for two reasons. Firstly, because of step 3. You have unmasked your automatic thoughts, and revealed them to be objectively untrue. This is not just wishful thinking! Secondly, because of the science of neural plasticity. Your mind will not change overnight. You will continue to be plagued by unwelcome automatic thoughts, and your alternatives may feel inauthentic and awkward at the beginning. In time, however, the positive thoughts will replace the negative ones, and will themselves become automatic, your new default setting, creating an upward spiral, a positive self-fulfilling prophecy, encouraging a happier, more productive, more confident you.
As ever, the key is practice.
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