Imagine you’re driving in town. You come to an intersection and get cut off by another driver. What are your immediate thoughts? Go ahead. Get all your road rage out while you’re reading this rather than when you’re actually driving! Here are a just a few possibilities:
- That guy is a jerk
- He needs to learn to drive
- Wow, he must be in a hurry
- Someone could have been hurt or even killed
- I guess it’s a good thing I’m being careful
Notice number 1 places me in the role of a victim. Number 2 questions the other person’s competence. Number 3 give the guy an excuse. Number 4 expresses fear. Number 5 reminds me that I am responsible for my driving. Each of these thoughts bring about different emotions. Going through the list quickly, the emotions could be anger, pride, sympathy, anxiety, and thankfulness.
Again, these are examples – not absolutes. If you would have chased him down and rammed his car, okay – but your automatic thoughts contributed to that as well!
Automatic thoughts are those that first go through our mind in response to a situation. Literally, they are our thought reactions to events. Like the deeper levels of thought (i.e., rules and assumptions and core beliefs), they usually go unnoticed. However, they determine our emotions and behavior.
Rules and assumptions arise out of our core beliefs. In much of the same way, automatic thoughts arise from our rules and assumptions. Think of it like a house. Core beliefs are the foundation. Rules and assumptions are the walls. Automatic thoughts are the parts we can see the easiest. Negative automatic thoughts lead to anxiety, depression, fear, dependency, anger, and even violence. From situation to situation, automatic thoughts change. However, there are usually some patterns.
Automatic thoughts are the ones that determine our emotions and behavior.
When we are struggling with mood problems (e.g., depression, anxiety, anger, etc.) or behavior (e.g., anger outbursts, crying spells, arguing, etc.), it is important to examine and correct problematic automatic thoughts. Here’s how.
You probably already know what situations cause you the most difficulty. Keep a record of your thoughts. Here are the things you will want to capture:
- Brief description of the situation
- Automatic thoughts
- How much do you believe the thought on a scale of 1 – 100?
- How intense was the emotion on a scale of 1 – 100?
Keep a log of this in a small notebook. Here’s a cool side effect – doing this consistently will often replace negative behaviors like arguing, anger outbursts, etc.
Correcting Problem Thinking
So now that you have recorded the situation, thoughts, and emotions, you can start to modify them. This part sounds really simple. It is not. It’s actually difficult to believe something new. Here are some steps:
- What is the evidence that the automatic thought is true?
- What is the evidence the automatic thought is NOT true?
- Is there an alternative explanation?
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- What’s the best that could happen?
- What is a realistic outcome?
- If a friend were in this situation, what would I tell him/her?
- What are some alternative thoughts that would leave me feeling differently?
- How much do I believe the alternative(s)?
This takes patience and practice! Most people typically doubt something like this will work for them. However, with practice, you can get to the point where you catch your automatic thoughts and modify them on the fly.
In thinking about the last problem reaction you had to a situation, what automatic thoughts do you think were involved? Leave your comments below.