Ever thought about how your automatic thoughts affect your mood, choices, relationships, and ultimately your reality?
Let’s start with ‘what are automatic thoughts?’ Well, our minds are constantly flowing with thoughts. Some have trained themselves to feel more in control of this flow of thoughts and where they direct their focus. That is a well-trained mind that takes discipline and practice! All of us, however, are subject to automatic thoughts, and just as they sound, these are thoughts that appear suddenly and without conscious effort. Automatic thoughts sometimes appear beyond our conscious awareness yet still drive our behaviors, reactions, and choices, affecting us, our communications, and circumstances surrounding us! Cognitive-behavioral therapy in fact seeks to raise our awareness of how our thoughts (automatic or otherwise) affect our realities so that we can empower ourselves to take greater control over our realities and feel more in control of how we RESPOND to our thoughts! We can’t necessarily stop the thoughts from popping up but we can draw conscious awareness to what’s happening and affect what we do in response.
Have you ever been doing something and suddenly a thought pops in your head? Perhaps you drove by a certain street/building or saw a commercial or color and all of a sudden thought of a person, place, time, or thing (often associated with a feeling). Perhaps you were simply lying in bed and a thought or memory popped in. These are automatic thoughts.
Have you ever found yourself all of a sudden feeling depressed, anxious, angry, hopeless, nervous, guilty, or any other feeling and you weren’t sure why? If someone asks why the sudden change, you simply think or reply: “I don’t know, it just came out of nowhere.” NOPE! It didn’t come out of nowhere! Your feeling was very likely the result of an underlying automatic thought that passed SO quickly through that it bypassed your conscious awareness but still affected your nervous system! Perhaps you looked at the clock, and the time happened to be the exact time you lost someone important or got bad news about something. Perhaps you saw a reminder of an anniversary of a loss? Perhaps you heard someone’s voice that reminded you of someone with whom you have unresolved pain. Sometimes are automatic thoughts lead to joyfulness and excited feelings! The point is that our automatic thoughts are generally influenced by our past and/or expectations of our present/future. They are generally informed by our views of ourselves, others, and the world.
Automatic thoughts are often intimately tied to our feelings and actions. In Psychology we reference a variation of an A-B-C model, sometimes utilizing Dysfunctional Thought Records. In basic terms, consider:
A = Activating Event = The Fact. 20 people watching a moment in your life would see the same facts.
B = Belief = Your belief about A. This is often influenced by your automatic thoughts and your work depends on recognizing these and when needed, reframing them so they work more to your favor and the life you want to create.
C = Consequences = Your feelings, choices, actions, and results. C is most often influenced by B, hence why the reframe may be critical!
The diagram below is a wonderful depiction of what happens in reality and what happens in our minds that affect our reality. The two sections highlighted in yellow are representative of FACTS. The grey areas in the middle include our interpretations of the facts that are affected by our automatic thoughts and the stories we tell ourselves (see Brene Brown on The Stories We Tell Ourselves).
To illustrate the ABC model, I often use the example of standing on line at the grocery store. Imagine for a moment that you’re standing on line to purchases your groceries and someone bumps the heel of your foot with their shopping cart.
A = Your heel gets bumped by a shopping cart. = FACT. 20 people could see this happen.
B = The story you tell yourself. Remember, this is influenced by your life history, who you have been surrounded by in your life, previous experiences, attitude about yourself, others, and the world, etc.
C = How you respond based on the B you settle on.
One person’s “B” might be: “What a jerk! Why would someone just hit me!” THIS person’s “C” might be to feel angry and/or wronged, to glare at the person behind them angrily, to be rude to the cashier, to drive aggressively home, to be cranky toward loved ones upon return home, or any combination of these.
Another person’s “B” might be: “Oh, I must have been in their way. I’m always in someone’s way.” THIS person’s “C” might be to feel sad or worthless, to look down and/or apologize to the person who bumped into them for being in the way. This person might walk out feeling sad, insecure, or unlovable the remainder of the day.
Another person’s “B” might be: “Ooh, that must have been an accident.” THIS person’s “C” might be to look back and ask if everything’s ok, or simply to ignore the incident as a likely accident. Their mood may not be affected or best case scenario they might have compassion for the person behind them, make sure everything is ok, and cheerfully go about their day.
When I work with patients, I help them identify cognitive reframes (i.e., recognize your automatic thought and catch it before you react to it. Reframe or ‘rewrite it,’ then respond from that place.). I help them work toward reframing any automatic thoughts that are not helpful to the “I’m sure that was an accident” assumption and to operate from that more compassionate place that is more likely to serve them and those around them with kindness, patience, and grace. Showing kindness toward others, deserved or not, tends to result in greater kindness toward ourselves and a more relaxed and resilient approach to life.
For those who find they often have those “sudden, out-of-nowhere” feelings, I might challenge you next time to ask yourself: “What just went through my mind” in the past 10ish minutes? “What did I just see or think about?” “What did I just drive by?” “What did I just smell? “What did that remind me of?” These questions will usually get you there and you get quiet and sit with the feeling.
See ABC Worksheet under the Mood/Anxiety Management section of my website to track your automatic thoughts and start the work toward reframing them: Invest in Personal Growth: FREE Resources