Negative Automatic Thoughts

Whether you’re aware of them or not, we all have automatic thoughts that we think in response to an EVENT (any occurrence, interaction, etc… that requires interpretation by our brains).  These are aptly labelled automatic thoughts (AT).  They can be both positive or negative, but it’s often the negative ones (NAT) that we are unaware of that cause us the biggest trouble in our lives! Most of the time these concepts from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are used in psychology and refer most often to those with a mood disorder (depression/anxiety).  However, these negative automatic thoughts (NAT) happen everyday and to almost everyone without exception.

Amongst the thousands of clients I’ve counselled on fat loss,  the ones who were unable to successfully work the plan almost always had underlying negative automatic thoughts that affected their behavior.  In fact, these thoughts often come from deeper underlying negative core belief.  We can try to change the core belief, but that can take a long time.  It seems more efficient and effective to target the NAT & the behaviors they produce.  Once we are able to change the NAT and create new, more desirable (to us) behaviors then the core belief starts to shift and becomes more easily changed to fall in line with your new thought & behavior pattern.  This is often how core beliefs become skewed towards the negative in the first place. NAT happens in response to an EVENT and the NAT triggers a BEHAVIORal action based on the thought.

Here are some examples of EVENTS & NAT & BEHAVIORS that could occur as a result: a) You have a bad day at work and you start thinking, “I suck”- this results in you actually become worse at your job (self-fulfilling prophecy) or starting to act like you hate your job so eventually you can justify quitting, etc…; b) Your kids are driving you crazy & you start to think, “I’m a horrible parent” – this results in you starting to resent your kids & possibly acting like it which can cause them to act out even more or become completely insecure, which obviously worsens the situation & increases tension between you and your children; or c) You feel some pain in your arm & you think “I’m going to die of Cancer” – this results in you start to express genuine fear responses, possibly even anxiety around physical symptoms (even leading to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)), additionally you start to believe that you will die of Cancer and you start to become less attentive to your health & prevention of disease.  Negative thoughts have been shown to depress immunity and eventually you could develop health issues as a result.

Now it might seem silly to read those examples, but honestly I have seen similar examples in clients that I’ve counselled.  Additionally, I have had similar ones crop up in my life in response to events.  So, I know that these happen & how much they can disrupt our flow, happiness, well-being & progress towards goals.  I’m sure by now you can see the importance of discovering your NATs in the context of lifestyle changes.  These can be the difference between success & failure. Interestingly, once you’ve discover your NAT, that can start you on the road to changing them. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely possible.  Once you install positive AT then you actually set yourself up for success much more readily. In the cases mentioned above, in working with the clients they were able to reframe their NATs into the following: a) “It was a tough day today, but I’m good at what I do & I’ll figure it out eventually, I always do.”; b) “My kids are having a rough transition/time of things lately & I’m feeling like it’s my fault, but I’m a smart person & will figure out how to help them transition more smoothly from now on.”; c) “My arm is hurting, and even though I can’t think of specific reasons why, sometimes a superficial pain is just that & I will pay attention and more closely monitor my movements & the pain and will follow up with my doctor if it persists or worsens”.

These positive reframes actually still acknowledge that there was a challenge/issue (the EVENT), but try to move away from the usual culprits that often lead to NAT, what are called cognitive distortions.  These include: a) All-or-nothing/Black-or-white thinking: things are either right or wrong, good or bad as opposed to shades of gray; b) Catastrophizing: predicting the future with only the worst-case in mind; c) Emotional reasoning: believing something is true because you feel it so deeply you often ignore or discount contrary evidence or opinions; d) Labeling: putting fixed, global label on yourself or others without considering different outcomes; e) Magnification/Minimization: when evaluating a person or EVENT, you blow up the negative & minimize the positive; f) Mental filter: you pay undue attention to the negative in people & events while ignoring the big picture; g) Mind reading: assuming you know what people are thinking (often negative) without considering other options; h) Overgeneralization: making a negative conclusion that goes far beyond the current situation; i) Personalization: believing that others are doing things because of you without considering more plausible options; j) Should & Must statements: having a fixed, specific idea of how others should behave & overestimating how bad it is if these expectations are NOT met; k) Tunnel vision: Seeing only the negative aspects of a situation. It IS entirely possible to condition ourselves for positive automatic thoughts in an area we choose or even to eliminate negative ones & install positive ones in a given area.  HOWEVER, it takes focus, time & effort!  Think about it, I would say that pretty much all of us have programs running in our brains 24/7 and many we are NOT aware of.  Not just the obvious blood pressure regulation, heart beat, etc… but also the constant interpretations about the environment we live in and what each interaction & situation means.  This is an essential evolutionary tactic psychologically for survival.  And sometimes if we go through trauma or significant psychological stress, then we adapt behaviors & automatic thoughts to help us survive & get past those situations.  Sometimes, these behaviors can be mal-adaptive in the context of a normal life, so we need to review our AT occasionally to make sure they are still working for us & not against us. This means we need to become aware of our AT and try to change them.  Here is one method that works pretty well.

Fill out a thought record – this is a formal clinical tool, but you can easily adapt it for your daily use.  You need to make a table with 7 columns including those listed below.  You can also snag one to print from Queens University here.

a) EVENT/SITUATION where you describe what actually happened objectively (i.e. my kids were acting out; or my car wouldn’t start; whatever it is);

b) Feelings/Emotions – put the emotion that you feel the most (i.e. anger, embarassment, etc…) and rate it’s intensity out of 100% (being highest); also jot down any physical sensations you are feeling (i.e. pounding heart, etc…);

c) Automatic Thoughts – record the first thoughts that come into your mind after the event; this will take some practice at becoming aware of your thoughts, and we often forget these later, so be sure to do this thought record right after the event occurs; questions can help remind you including: i) What went through my mind? ii) What disturbed me? What did these thoughts/images mean to me or say about me? for instance; Now it’s time to challenge those NATs, so we need to start building a case for and against, think of this part like a Law & Order episode in the court room;

d) Facts that support the NAT – list all the FACTS that the NAT is true; this is challenging especially when you are in a negative state or if your core beliefs about yourself or others is negative; just jot them down, don’t judge, then you can come back & challenge the evidence with more objective eyes;

e) Facts that the NAT is NOT true – same as before, but now you are building a case for the opposition;

f) Alternative/Realistic/Balanced perspective – this is CRITICAL, you need to move on from your evidence & get to a point where the NAT has at least less power over you, if not has been totally destroyed by you; Now you need to create a more balanced thought to replace it;

g) Outcome with new AT – Once you have  solid alternative AT, how do you feel now?- rate it 0-100% again; Other helpful questions: i) What could I do differently?  ii) What would be more effective? Do what works! Act wisely. Don’t forget to ask: iii) What will be most helpful for the situation? iv) What will the consequences be?

Now I know it seems overwhelming, but like any skill you just need to practice it.  Honestly, after a while it becomes second nature & when you recognize a NAT occurring after an EVENT, then you will automatically start disrupting the cascade of negative thoughts & behaviors that normally come from that by questioning things and not over-reacting!

This tool is useful for all aspects of your life, wellness & health! Use this tool to blow through barriers that you might be putting up to successfully making a lifestyle change that you definitely deserve! I hope this post helps you live better! Have a great week! Dan T

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