Automatic Thoughts: Address What Really Gets You Worked Up

What is an Automatic Thought:

An automatic thought (AT) is a cognition you have that is out of your control. We have thousands of automatic thoughts a day. We are aware of some of our ATs, but not most of them. It’s okay to not be tuned into every thought you have because that experience would be overwhelming and unnecessary! However, automatic thoughts do play an important role in how we see ourselves, others, and the world. ATs reflect our core beliefs, and if our ATs are mostly distorted, they can contribute to feeling depressed and anxious.

Identifying your automatic thoughts is the first step to understanding why you may be feeling a certain way. The more practiced you become in identifying your automatic thoughts, the more likely you are to distinguish helpful and accurate thoughts from unhelpful and distorted thoughts. This empowers you to endorse the constructive thoughts and change or let go of the “good for nothing” thoughts.

How to identify Your Automatic Thoughts:

Ask yourself, “What was I thinking right before I started to feel this way?”

If you’re having trouble identifying a thought, try the opposite technique:

Pose a thought that is opposite to what you may be thinking. For example, I was feeling a little anxious gathering my thoughts to write this post. I could not pinpoint the reason for my anxiety so I asked myself the opposite. “So, Andrea, are you thinking everyone is going to love your post?” No. My automatic thought was more along the lines of, “What if I don’t do a good job writing this?”

You can also ask yourself what the situation means to you. For example, I was late meeting a friend and I felt worried. My friend is very understanding and has been late to our meetings before, so I was curious as to why I was upset. After reflecting on what it meant to me to be late, I realized I didn’t want her to think that I was irresponsible or lazy.

Identifying your ATs while upset is not easy, so don’t fret if catching your ATs feels difficult at first. Becoming aware of ATs is a process and with time it becomes easier to do.

Ok, You Know What You’re Thinking, Now What?

Once you Identify your ATs it’s time to evaluate them. This is a key part to cognitive restructuring because it helps you gain some distance from your thinking. Beck, a leader in the field of cognitive therapy, and other psychologists have created lists of common cognitive distortions that can negatively impact our thinking and emotions. When you identify your AT, it can be helpful to identify which distortions may be present in this thought. By doing so you may gain some clarity in the accuracy of the thought. Below is a list of distortions Dr. Grohol complied for Psych Central. If you’d like to access the information directly, please visit:

1. Filtering.

We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.

2. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking).

In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

3. Overgeneralization.

In this cognitive distortion, we come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat.

4. Jumping to Conclusions.

Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us.

For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.

5. Catastrophizing.

We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what ifquestions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).

For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).

With practice, you can learn to answer each of these cognitive distortions.

6. Personalization.

Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to the person. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc.

A person engaging in personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that they were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

7. Control Fallacies.

If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”

8. Fallacy of Fairness.

We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. As our parents tell us when we’re growing up and something doesn’t go our way, “Life isn’t always fair.” People who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it. Because life isn’t “fair” — things will not always work out in your favor, even when you think they should.

9. Blaming.

We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.

10. Shoulds.

We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.

For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs should statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration and resentment.

11. Emotional Reasoning.

We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect he way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

12. Fallacy of Change.

We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

13. Global Labeling.

We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.

For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”

14. Always Being Right.

We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.

15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy.

We expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.

Practice On Your Own, But Sometimes it’s Best to Consult a Professional

It is very possible that you will be able to use the tools mentioned immediately and start gaining insight into your thoughts so that you can learn how to feel better. There are many self help books that also offer step by step instructions as to how to do this (For example: Feeling Good by Dr. Burns). However, if you’re struggling, its best to consult a professional. Therapists trained in Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy will be able to guide you through the process of identifying, evaluating, and modifying your thoughts and beliefs so that you can live a more satisfying life. A therapist can support and challenge you through the process of change without judgement. So, try these suggestions on your own, or find a professional to help you through the processes. This is some powerful stuff, and I hope you get to experience the benefits of becoming more aware of your thoughts.

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