Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) operates on the general principle that our thoughts influence our feelings, and our feelings influence our behaviors.
Thoughts –> Feelings –> Behaviors
For example, a person could have the thought: “I suck at my job.”
This creates feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness.
Now in this negative emotional state, in the person may engage in harmful behaviors, such as drinking too much, watching Netflix for hours and hours, or procrastinating on a project they need to finish. In this case, the thoughts created feelings that led to behaviors – and now the cycle will repeat.
Automatic thoughts are a major concept in CBT, and they are what they sound like: thoughts, ideas and images that pop into our minds without conscious intent.
We all experience automatic thoughts. I like to tell my clients that our minds are wired first and foremost to help us survive and keep us safe from both real and perceived threats. This is why, in certain cases, automatic thoughts can benefit us. Consider the following example:
You’re walking down Market Street in SF and you see a lion roaming around in the bus lane. In response, some version of the following automatic thoughts may pop into your mind:
“I’m not safe. I need to get out of here!”
Because thoughts lead to feelings and feelings lead to behaviors, the aforementioned thoughts may trigger feelings of fear and panic, which then lead you to a behavior involving getting away from that big, scary lion as quickly as possible. In this example, your automatic thoughts are serving a positive purpose: helping you to stay safe and survive.
In other cases, however, automatic thoughts can do more harm than good. We find this to be the case more commonly for people who experience anxiety and depression. Here are two more examples to chew on:
A person who feels depressed may experience automatic thoughts such as: “I’m worthless. No one cares about me. I can’t handle feeling this way and I’m going to feel this way forever.”
A person who feels anxious may interpret their boss asking them to meet ASAP as a threat, thinking: “She’s upset with me. I did something wrong. I’m going to get fired today, I know it.”
These types of automatic thoughts can be harmful and they may also be untrue. They can create feeling states leading to behaviors that can end up causing more harm than good.
If you are reading this and recognize that you struggle with harmful automatic thoughts, you are probably wondering what you can do to break the cycle.
If so, you are in the right place, because in the coming weeks, I will be talking about how to recognize and challenge automatic thoughts. And if you’re ready to get started, I already have your first step:
Build Your Mindfulness Muscles
Your first step in learning how to recognize and challenge your automatic thoughts is to begin cultivating a regular mindfulness practice. Mindfulness encourages us to wake up to the present moment, allowing it to exist as it is with acceptance, curiosity and non-judgment. (Read more about mindfulness here.) By cultivating a mindfulness practice, you will begin to notice and become more aware of your automatic thoughts as they occur.
After all, if you aren’t aware of your automatic thoughts, you cannot challenge them. As we’ve established, they’re called automatic thoughts because…they’re automatic! Most of the time, we don’t even recognize we’re having them.
This first exercise in breaking the cycle is so important and will set you up for success moving forward. Once the foundational mindfulness muscles have been strengthened, you can will be ready to learn how to challenge and interrupt harmful, unhelpful automatic thoughts.
If you’re new to mindfulness, a guided mindfulness meditation can be a great place to start. For that reason, I’ve created a FREE mindfulness meditation just for you!
I don’t want you to miss out on all the valuable information I’ll be sharing in the coming weeks, so be sure to sign up for my mailing list and we’ll continue the conversation next week!
This site is for informational purposes only. It isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health problems and is not intended as psychological advice.
© 2021 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.