What is automatic thinking?

Automatic thoughts, as their name implies, are mechanisms of which we are not aware of. Yet they very strongly influence our way of being, our emotions, but also our actions.

In these conditions, learning to recognize them helps to avoid their pitfalls.

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Thus, it becomes possible to take a different look, to analyze events rather than react in “autopilot”.

No longer being guided by automatic thoughts, it is also to regain control of one’s emotions and thus of the relationship with others. It is to regain our ability to interact with consciousness.

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What are automatic thoughts?

What better way to explain a concept than to propose a situation? Also, I propose an example that will certainly remind you of a scene you have already lived: imagine that you are at office, or at home, in the preparation of an important file or event that requires your full attention. In short, you are under pressure, because you want an impeccable result.

Suddenly, a phone call or a person’s visit. This one begins to point out all the shortcomings of your work, to make counterproposals, to identify the weaknesses…

Even if you end up putting that person at the door, chances are that automatic thoughts have already started their work. Especially if you put her at the door without any use! Anger is one of the emotions that most often results from automatic thoughts. You reacted hot!

Similarly, if you politely drove the person, this exchange certainly created confusion in your mind. You have doubts about your ability to succeed, you are no longer very sure of yourself, of your approach…

This concept of automatic thoughts was formalized by American psychiatrist, professor emeritus of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, Aaron Temkin Beck.

Incidentally, Dr. Beck is also considered to be the father of cognitive therapy and depression evaluation criteria used in therapeutic screening for this disease.

Resume Control

First, let’s go back to our little script for a few seconds. It is most likely that you have identified yourself in one or the other situations. Now, what would happen if I told you that this person, at the origin of this reaction, wanted only your good? That she hopes so much, if not anymore, that you succeed and that she was ready to help you?

This simple example is certainly enough to make you touch finger the problem. If the “autopilot” we have already talked about affects our habits, automatic thoughts affect our relationships with others and self-image. Impostor syndrome and autosabotage are manifestations of this.

There are no multiple solutions to combat this problem. To use it, no miracle exercises. There is only will and perseverance.

The method proposed by Dr. Beck is simple and, from some angles, is a bit reminiscent of Coluche’s aphorism:

The less you pedal, the less you advance faster

Here we will have to force our brain to pedal less hard. And for this, one must first take the time to analyze his negative thoughts. To intercept them, to reassess them before turning them into realistic thoughts.

Cognitive Distortion Concepts

At its Depression studies, Dr. Beck identified six modes of automatic thought that cause cognitive distortions. Here is the summary from the excellent Canadian website Psychomedia:

  1. Thinking “all or nothing” or “black or white”: Thinking dichotomically (polarized) without shade: all or nothing, black or white, never or always, good or bad… There is no room for gray. For example, see themselves as a failure due to poor performance. This distortion is often present in perfectionism.
  2. Arbitrary inference (early conclusion): Draw early conclusions (usually negative) from little evidence. For example, reading the thought of others is to infer the possible or probable thoughts of a person; the mistake in forecasting is to take as facts expectations about the turn of events.
  3. Overgeneralization: To draw a general conclusion based on a single (or a few) incident (s). For example, if a negative event (such as a failure) occurs, expect it to happen constantly.
  4. Selective abstraction (or filter): Tendency to dwell on negative details in a situation, which leads to a negative perception of the whole situation.
  5. Dramatization and minimization: Amplify the importance of its errors and shortcomings. Consider an unpleasant, but banal event as intolerable or a disaster. Or, on the contrary, minimize its strengths and successes or consider a happy event as banal.
  6. Customization: Think wrongly be responsible for unfortunate events beyond its control; think about wrong that what others do is related to oneself.

Therefore, the first action to combat negative thoughts will therefore be to identify whether they are similar to one of these 6 criteria

Burns Criteria

In 1980, psychologist David Burns expanded this list by adding 4 criteria

  1. Emotional reasoning: Take for granted that emotional states correspond to reality. For example, consider fear as an attestation of danger; saying “I am stupid” rather than “I feel stupid”.
  2. Beliefs about what should be done (false obligations): Have expectations about what one should, or what others should, do without reviewing the realism of these expectations being given the capabilities and resources available in the situation. Which generates guilt and feelings of frustration, anger and resentment.
  3. Labelling: Use a label, that is, a qualifier that implies negative judgement, in a way that represents overly generalization, rather than describing the specific behavior. For example, “I am a loser” rather than describing the error.
  4. The blame: Holding others wrongly responsible for one’s emotions or blaming themselves for those of others.

Sorting and experiencing

Then, if negative thoughts are multiple, you need to prioritize them. What is the one that causes the strongest, most difficult emotion? Logically, this will be the first to evaluate.

Now it remains for you to determine, in complete objectivity, whether or not this emotion is based on a distortion of reality and which one. In our example, a simple question about the intentions of the nobody would have been enough. If we were aware of the intentions, and even if the way of doing things remains disturbing, we would not have acted the same way.

Better yet, we would have been happy to know that this person was there to support us. That she believed in our success. We could have made it an ally.

In another sense, we would have transformed negative thoughts into positive thoughts and create a bond. Thus, it would have strengthened our self-esteem.

To conclude.

Working your automatic thoughts is a long process. He asks for everyday work.

There is no question of “disappearing” the emotion caused, it is neither the goal nor even possible. However, it makes it possible to use it to trigger the mechanism, better manage stress and, above all, create positive emotions. Because there is the engine !


Cognitive Therapy and Emotional Disorders — Aaron TBeck