Automatic thoughts: what are they and how do they control us?

Surely the phrase “I feel like I’m living on autopilot” sounds familiar to you, either because you’ve heard someone say it or because you repeat it yourself. In fact, it is a very common habit. Today’s lifestyle is fast-paced, monotonous, and repetitive, so most people only perform a small percentage of all the activities they do on a daily basis. Our brain, and especially our memory, has a great capacity to register repeated behaviors and can correct themselves because we need less attention and concentration to perform them.

For example: the first time we drive, the focus is on the vehicle, steering wheel, gears, mirrors and the road, but after a practice time less concentration is needed, the movements do not require more time. ‘effort as they are stored in the wonderful memory store. Something similar happens with automatic thoughts.

    Habits based on neural connections

    When we adopt a habit, our nervous system internalizes it. This type of recording is carried out even at the neural level.

    When someone pinches us, for example, neurons communicate and immediately send information from the axon of one to the dendrite of the other, producing a synapse connection, which sends a pain message that causes the reaction to the stimulus, this sensation is immediately recorded. and if someone pinches us again with the same intensity it is likely that we do not react the same way the reason? The information perceived is not new and does not surprise neurons, the stimulus should be changed or intensified to provoke a reaction again.

    It also happens with everyday life and with the experiences that we repeat every day, where we immerse ourselves automatic movements and behaviors.

    However, these behaviors are not only those that are practiced or come from outside, such as walking, driving a vehicle or receiving a strong stimulus on our skin, but we also have behaviors within us. They are thoughts.

    In fact, according to the theories of cognitive psychology, a large part of external actions and emotions depend on thoughts. And, like our physical behavior, thoughts also become automatic.

      Automatic thoughts

      Is the existence of these thoughts really a problem? It is for that person who starts to feel bad in different areas of his life; personal, professional or family and begins to suffer from symptoms of sadness, anxiety, worry or any other factor causing physical, social or emotional imbalance in addition to understanding that the individual, in many cases, does not know not even why he feels that way.

      Automatic thinking is repeated several times and has a great influence on the emotions causing what is called cognitive rumination and in general its content is charged with a negative perception of the individual. This information only lasts a few seconds but has great power..

      Have you noticed what an object looks like after a mouse slowly eats it? When you realize there is a big hole! Well it’s true mental rumination, It slowly creates a mark and from so many repetitions it starts to form a hole. If you don’t chase the “mouse” things can get out of hand.

      Thoughts as simple as “I do not serve” are enough to develop a behavior to avoid any activity deemed useful because an irrational belief has already been created and memory has recorded it so many times that many experiences will make it active.

        How to identify and manage them?

        There are many techniques for identifying and dealing with automatic thoughts, and their effectiveness will depend on one’s abilities, but the first thing that is always recommended is to seek the help of a professional psychologist. Going to therapy is a great path that will lead you to question a lot of things and identify the pitfalls you set for yourself.

        But beyond these types of services, there are tools that can be practiced at home that are very useful. One of them is self-registration. This technique is one of the most used in cognitive behavioral therapy and requires a lot of commitment and discipline. It consists of recording your own behaviors (thoughts) and following them. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The truth is that it requires a high level of concentration, precisely so that what is automatic ceases to be automatic.

        As mentioned earlier, many emotions are caused by distorted ideas, for this reason, self-registration is about identifying the thoughts that cause psychological distress, searching for the mind. those beliefs that trigger negative symptoms. It’s hard and exhausting work, but it works, and when you realize these automatic thoughts and their content, you understand how absurd and false they can become.

        Another way to get rid of some of this cognitive ruminating is to insert, consensually, positive thoughts that can counteract the negative ones. What is difficult about this is that saying “beautiful” things is overrated, as the lack of such self-affirmations stored in memory causes difficulty in remembering and thinking about them.

        One way to solve this problem can be seen in the experience of WG Johnson (1971), in which he helped a 17-year-old student to increase the rate of positive self-affirmations. He told her to imagine positive thoughts every time she went to the bathroom, did that work? Oh yes! By the end of this experience, the student had noticeably increased positive thoughts and negative thoughts had almost disappeared. The reason for this success? Johnson relied on the principle formulated by David Premack (1959) that dictates that unlikely behavior (positive thinking) can increase if combined with behavior that has a high probability of occurring (going to the bathroom). .

        The human mind is a beautiful world, Mysterious and very interesting, getting to understand it is still a long way off but remember again, you do not always react to the outside world, sometimes it is you who create your own reactions.

        Author: David Custodio Hernández, clinical psychologist.

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