What we mean by “mind” seems to be a succession of thoughts, images and perceptions that rarely stop. Sometimes we are consciously in control of our mental content, but most of the time they work automatically, which makes our lives easier.
Negative automatic thoughts are a special case. These are events that cause us unpleasant emotions and interfere with the achievement of our goals; sometimes even a causal and sustaining role in psychological disorders, such as depression, is attributed to this type of thinking.
What are automatic thoughts?
Automatic thoughts are images and verbalizations that arise spontaneously during everyday life. These types of thoughts are constantly appearing and are usually adaptive because we cannot control our mind at all times, but certain types of automatic thoughts are conducive to the onset of trouble.
The main problem with these thoughts is that we tend to take them for granted even though we have no evidence to back them up. As they appear naturally, automatic thoughts they are part of our sense of identityEven when they are negative, and it can be difficult to walk away from them.
Psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, known to have developed the most influential theoretical and therapeutic model in cognitive therapy, argued that negative automatic thoughts are the immediate cause of symptoms of depression, As they cause the appearance of unpleasant emotions and interfere with behavior.
This concept was subsequently applied to other disorders as well, especially those related to anxiety, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder.
Characteristics of negative automatic thoughts
Negative automatic thoughts share a number of traits that differentiate them from other mental contents. The characteristics that we will describe below refer in particular to the analyzes carried out around depression.
As the name suggests, automatic thoughts are not dependent on the conscious mind but they appear involuntarily. They are an automatic consequence of the situations that we encounter in our daily life and it is not possible to control them before they appear, although we can handle them once they have arisen.
Negative automatic thoughts often contain pessimistic messages, especially referred to us and to our capacities or personal worth. For example, thoughts similar to “Even though I have studied, I will fail because I am a fool” are common among many people.
Pessimism leads to self-fulfillment prophecies: since negative automatic thoughts make us doubt ourselves, if we consider them to be valid they interfere with the achievement of our goals. In the example above, the person may be successful if they study, but negative thoughts will prevent them from doing so.
The fact that negative automatic thoughts are generally plausible this allows us to identify ourselves more easily. In addition, paying attention to these thoughts causes them to become more realistic; if we believe we are socially inept, it is more likely that anxiety will lead us to make mistakes in social interaction.
Although believable, automatic negative thoughts are derived from distorted interpretations of reality. They are based on partial truths, however they neglect facts that contradict them and that they are also true. This characteristic is linked to the cognitive distortions that Beck also described.
How to deal with automatic thoughts?
Below we will describe an effective procedure for learning how to identify and manage negative automatic thoughts. These steps are based on three techniques developed by Beck: automatic thought recording, the four-question technique, and reality testing.
1. Note the situation, the emotion and the thought
At first, negative automatic thoughts can be difficult to detect and process, so it’s a good idea to start with a simple technique. Feel an unpleasant emotionLike sadness or nerves, this will be used as a cue to note any thoughts or images that arise. It is advisable to also indicate in which situation they occur.
2. Identify recurring thoughts
These types of thoughts tend to be quite idiosyncratic, so it is very common for certain messages to be repeated in each person. When recording automatic thoughts, it is important to be careful which appear particularly frequently; thus we could detect a tendency to catastrophism or perfectionism, for example.
3. Evaluate the degree of realism
Once we have learned how to easily identify negative thoughts, it will be time to complicate the process. A very useful strategy is to think coldly about the credibility we place on these thoughts and evaluate it from 0 to 100. The point is to understand that although they have an element of truth, we tend to overestimate it based on emotion.
4. Raise alternative thoughts
We can use the thought register to come up with rational messages that replace automatic messages; this is especially important in the case of recurring thoughts. hem try to make these alternatives realistic and not pessimistic.
So if we often think, “I’m just talking nonsense”, another message might be “Sometimes I talk about things that other people don’t care about.” We can also rate our confidence in these rational thoughts from 0 to 100.
5. Replace negative thoughts
By normalizing the above steps as daily strategies, it will be easier for us to replace negative automatic thoughts with rational alternatives; with practice we can do it immediately when detecting negative thoughts. This will help us reduce the negative emotions that arise.
6. Do reality tests
Beck posed the reality tests as experiments that test hypotheses most relevant automatic thoughts. The type of test will depend on the thinking and the impairment we undergo. In this case, it may also be useful to record the expectations from 0 to 100 before taking the test, and to assess success again afterwards.
For example, in a case of social phobia, you can test the thought “I am unable to talk to strangers without getting very nervous” by planning brief interactions with people we do not know (for example, ask them what time is) and increase the challenge level as you go.