Tag Archives: mindfulness

Harnessing the Power of Automatic Thoughts

Photo by ahmad gunnaivi on Unsplash

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!

Click here to have it delivered to your inbox now!

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!

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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.
© 2019 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

Shut Up & Dance: Lessons on Mindfulness from a Pop Song


Photo credit:Dancing in the Street 4” by Petr Dosek is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As a psychologist and pop culture lover, I love it when a piece of pop culture – say, a popular song – allows me to explain a psychological concept.

The song Shut Up and Dance by Walk the Moon is a song that most of us are familiar with, since it was released over the radio waves in 2014.

The first time I heard Shut Up and Dance, I thought it was about a person getting bossed around on the dance floor by his partner. After a few more listens, I realized: this is actually a song about a person who lacks mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a concept that’s pretty huge in the psychology world today. But a lot of people have misconceptions about it.

Before I dive into the song and discuss how it illustrates the power of mindfulness, I will give a few examples of what mindfulness is not:

Mindfulness is not…

  • telling yourself things are fine when they’re not (like that ever works!)
  • getting rid of your thoughts
  • getting rid of your feelings
  • zoning out
  • relaxation training

What is mindfulness? In a nutshell, mindfulness is the practice of being fully present with whatever is happening right now, with gentleness, compassion and non-judgment. It’s about noticing and observing (note that I didn’t say “liking” or “approving of”) whatever is happening, as it is occurring.

Now, if you don’t know the song I’m talking about, you can have a listen right here. But you don’t have to listen to the song, because I’m going to post some of the lyrics below.

So why do I say Shut Up and Dance is a song about mindfulness?

It’s told from the point of view of a man who’s dancing with a woman he’s really drawn to, but instead of enjoying the dance, he’s wondering things like “Where is this relationship going?” “Is this the person I’m meant to be with for the rest of my life?” “Is she being completely vulnerable and honest with me?”:

“Oh don’t you dare look back.
Just keep your eyes on me.”
I said, “You’re holding back, “
She said, “Shut up and dance with me!”
This woman is my destiny
She said, “Ooh-ooh-hoo,
Shut up and dance with me.”

The woman, as illustrated in the lyrics above, is the much more mindful of the two: she’s focused on the moment, on enjoying the dance as it unfolds, and she’s trying to pull her partner into the present moment, literally by telling him to shut up and dance with her.

Unfortunately, her partner can’t stop thinking about their dance in “big picture” terms, telling himself the “story” of their relationship and the significant role this dance played in its inception as if it’s already happened:

We were victims of the night,
The chemical, physical, kryptonite
Helpless to the bass and the fading light
Oh, we were bound to get together,
Bound to get together.

He’s looking backwards, he’s looking forwards, but he’s not focusing on the one thing he needs to be focusing on, which is the present moment. This is what his dance partner wants and needs from him.

So how can we apply the message of Shut Up and Dance to our own lives? Well, if you’re human, you will no doubt be able to relate the the struggle of staying in the present moment. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in our thoughts about the future, past or anything.

It helps to first recognize that mindfulness is a practice, and that it that takes practice. In fact, many people adapt a “mindfulness practice” that extends throughout the course of their entire lives. This practice may or may not include mindfulness meditation.

My experiences, both personal and professional, have led me to believe that cultivating and practicing mindfulness can be a life-changing force in a person’s life. Whether mindfulness helps us stay present for moments of joy, or moments of pain, it is a powerful tool that can help us manage whatever we’re facing.

As they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So why not take a small step by practicing a brief mindfulness meditation today? Here’s one I like that’s great for beginners and only ten minutes long. Check it out and let me know in the comments how it goes.

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Website Privacy Policy I Website Terms & Conditions I Website Disclaimer
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.
© 2019 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.