Negative automatic thoughts: 6 keys to handle them
What we understand by "mind" seems to be a succession of thoughts, images and perceptions that rarely stop. Sometimes we consciously control our mental contents, but most of the time they work automatically, which makes life easier for us.
Negative automatic thoughts are a special case . These are events that provoke us unpleasant emotions and interfere in the achievement of our objectives; sometimes even this type of thoughts is attributed to a causal and maintenance role in psychological disorders, as is the case with depression.
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What are automatic thoughts?
Automatic thoughts are images and verbalizations that arise spontaneously during everyday life. These types of thoughts appear constantly and are generally adaptive, since we can not control our mind at all times, but some types of automatic thoughts favor the appearance of disorders.
The main problem of these thoughts is that we tend to take them as true even though we do not have proofs to confirm them. As they appear naturally, automatic thoughts fit our sense of identity , even when they are negative, and it can be difficult to distance yourself from them.
The psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, known for developing the most influential theoretical and therapeutic model in the framework of cognitive therapy, stated that automatic negative thoughts are the immediate cause of the symptoms of depression , since they cause unpleasant emotions to appear and interfere with the behavior.
Subsequently, this concept has also been applied to other disorders, particularly 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 series of traits that differentiates them from other mental contents . The characteristics that we will describe next make reference especially to the analyzes carried out around depression.
As the name suggests, automatic thoughts do not depend on the conscious mind but rather they appear without us wanting . They are an automatic consequence of the situations we encounter on a daily basis 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, particularly referred to ourselves and our capabilities or worth personal. For example, thoughts similar to "Although I studied I will suspend because I am stupid" are common in many people.
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Pessimism entails self-fulfilling prophecies: since negative automatic thoughts make us doubt ourselves, if we take them as valid they interfere in the achievement of our goals . In the previous example, the person may approve if they study, but negative thinking will make it difficult for them to do so.
The fact that automatic negative thoughts normally have a plausible character It makes it easier for us to identify with them . In addition, heeding these thoughts leads them to become more realistic; If we believe that we are socially inept, anxiety is more likely to lead us to make mistakes in social interaction.
Although they are credible, negative automatic thoughts derive from distorted interpretations of reality. They are based on partial truths, but they obviate facts that contradict and that are equally true. This characteristic is related to the cognitive distortions that Beck also described.
How to handle automatic thoughts?
Below we will describe an effective procedure to learn to identify and handle negative automatic thoughts . These steps are based on three techniques developed by Beck: the automatic thoughts register, the four question technique and the reality tests.
1. Write down the situation, emotion and thought
At first, negative automatic thoughts may be difficult to detect and elaborate, so it is best to start with a simple technique. When feeling an unpleasant emotion , as sadness or nerves, this will be used as a signal to note which thoughts or images arise.It is advisable to also point out in what situation they occur.
2. Identify recurring thoughts
This type of thoughts tend to be quite idiosyncratic, so it is very common for each person to repeat certain messages. When recording automatic thoughts it is important to pay attention to which appear with particular frequency ; So we could detect a tendency to catastrophism or perfectionism, for example.
3. Evaluate the degree of realism
Once we have learned to easily identify negative thoughts, it will be time to make the procedure more complex. A very useful strategy is to reflect coldly on the credibility that we give to these thoughts and evaluate it from 0 to 100 . The objective is to understand that, although they have part of truth, we tend to overestimate it from emotion.
4. Raise alternative thoughts
We can use the register of thoughts to propose rational messages that replace the automatic ones; This is especially important in the case of recurring thoughts. We must try to make these alternatives realistic and not pessimists.
Thus, if we often think "I only say nonsense", an alternative message could be "Sometimes I talk about things that do not interest others very much". We can also assess from 0 to 100 our degree of confidence in these rational thoughts.
5. Replace negative thoughts
As we normalize the previous 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 flow from them.
6. Make reality tests
Beck raised the reality tests as experiments that test hypotheses of the most relevant automatic thoughts. The type of test will depend on the thought and the alteration that we suffer. In this case, it can also be useful to evaluate expectations from 0 to 100 before doing the test, and evaluate the 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 (eg ask them what time it is) and increasing the level of challenge progressively.