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

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

June 24, 2021

Surely the phrase "I feel that I live on autopilot" is familiar to you, either because you heard it said to someone or because you repeat it to yourself. Actually, it's a very common habit. Currently the lifestyle is accelerated, monotonous and repetitive, making most people realize only a small percentage of all the activities they do on a day-to-day basis. Our brain, and specifically our memory, has a great capacity to record repeated behaviors and can cope so that we need less attention and concentration to carry them out.

For example: The first time we drive, the attention is maximized on the vehicle, the steering wheel, the speeds, the mirrors and the road, but after a time of practice less concentration is needed, the movements do not require more effort due to which are stored in the wonderful storehouse of memory. Something similar happens with the automatic thoughts .


  • Related article: "The 9 types of thought and their characteristics"

Habits based on neuronal connections

As we adopt a habit, our nervous system internalizes it. This type of records is carried out even at the neuronal level .

When someone pinches us, for example, then the neurons communicate and send information from the axon of one to the dendrite of another, producing a connection by synapse, which sends a message of pain that provokes the reaction to the stimulus, that feeling immediately it is recorded and if someone pinches us again with the same intensity it is probable that we do not react in the same way. The reason? The perceived information is not new and does not surprise the neurons, it would be necessary to change the stimulus or intensify it to provoke a reaction again.


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

Now, these behaviors are not only those that are made or come from the outside, such as walking, driving a vehicle or receiving a strong stimulus on our skin, but also we have behaviors inside. They are the thoughts.

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

  • Related article: "What is the synaptic space and how does it work?"

Automatic thoughts

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


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

Have you noticed how any object looks after a mouse is eating it little by little? When you realize, there is a big hole! So that's it mental rumination , it is creating a brand little by little and from so much repetition a hole begins to form. If you do not hunt the "mouse" the situation can get out of hand.

Thoughts as simple as "I do not serve" are enough to develop an avoidance behavior of any activity that is considered useful because an irrational belief has already been created and memory has registered so many times that many experiences will make it active.

  • Related article: "Rumination: the annoying vicious circle of thought"

How to identify and manage them?

There are many techniques to identify and manage automatic thoughts, and whether or not they work depends on the abilities of each one, but The first thing that is always recommended is to seek help from a professional in Psychology . Going to therapy is a beautiful path that will lead you to question many things and identify the traps that you place yourself.

But beyond this type of services, there are tools that can be practiced at home and 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 keeping track of them.It seems easy, right? The truth is that it requires a high level of concentration, precisely so that what is automatic, ceases to be so.

As mentioned before, many of the emotions are caused by distorted ideas, for this reason self-registration consists of identifying the thoughts that cause psychological distress, searching the mind those beliefs that trigger negative symptoms . This is an arduous and exhausting job, but it works, and when you realize those automatic thoughts and their content you understand how absurd and untruthful they can be.

Another way to get rid of some of these cognitive ruminations is to insert, in a conscious way, positive thoughts that can counteract the negative ones. The difficulty of this is that saying "nice" things is overrated, because not being this type of self-affirmations recorded in memory cause difficulties to remember and think about them.

One way to solve this can be seen in the experiment by W. G. 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 it work? Yes! At the end of this experiment the student had markedly increased positive thoughts and negative ones had almost disappeared. The reason for this success? Johnson was based on the principle formulated by David Premack (1959) that dictates that behavior that is unlikely to occur (positive thoughts) can increase if combined with a behavior that has a high probability of occurrence (going to the bathroom).

The human mind is a beautiful world , mysterious and extremely interesting, to get to fully understand it is still far away but despite this, remember, you are not always reacting to the outside world, sometimes, you are the one who creates your own reactions.

Author: David Custodio Hernández, Clinical psychologist.


Automatic Thoughts (June 2021).


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