Automatic Thoughts :
The human brain has developed, to save unnecessary mental work, to learn to carry out many activities so well that they become automatic. Examples include, for instance, tying our ties or shoelaces, or more complicated procedures like driving a car. When we first undertook such activities, we had to concentrate hard on them and give them our full attention.
But once we have performed them sufficiently often, we can carry them out without much conscious thought at all; on ‘automatic pilot’, as it were. This is a very good thing for many activities; however, when it comes to our thinking processes, many irrational beliefs and ideas we have picked up throughout our lives we can mentally repeat to ourselves so often that they, too, become automatic and we accept them as representing ‘that’s how things are’ unquestioningly.
In this way, irrational beliefs can become habitual and ingrained, affecting our view of the world, ourselves, the future and others in most unhelpful ways. Such irrational and habitual negative thinking is often a major cause of feelings of anxiety.
Above : An example of how our thoughts, feelings, biology and behaviour interact with one another.
Automatic thought processes which often contribute to anxiety include:
a – our internal ‘self-talk’ or ‘internal monologue’
b – past events and memories which perpetually recur in our minds (these can be extremely selective and are also strongly influenced by mood; so, if we are depressed, we will selectively recall our failures rather than our successes, for example. Or we might dwell on our bad characteristics, rather than our good ones. Unsurprisingly, this perpetuates the depression).
c – explanations we provide ourselves with for how our lives have turned out (eg I am not in a relationship because I am intrinsically unlovable).
d – key stories we tell ourselves about our lives, which we believe are crucial to them (eg in relation to our work or our childhoods etc)
e – our reflections on our daily living experience (again, this can be very selective; for example, if we are depressed we may focus solely on our errors and failings whilst, at the same time, ignoring or devaluing our successes).
All of these thinking processes are underpinned by OUR CORE BELIEFS WHICH WERE LARGELY LAID DOWN IN CHILDHOOD. Core beliefs relate to 3 main areas:
1) BELIEFS ABOUT OURSELVES
2) BELIEFS ABOUT OTHERS
3) BELIEFS ABOUT THE WORLD
COGNITIVE THERAPY HELPS US TO CHANGE OUR HABITUAL, UNHELPFUL THOUGHT PROCESSES (a-e above) and our CORE BELIEFS for the better. By changing how we think (eg by challenging our irrational, negative, automatic thoughts) and reassessing our belief system we can change the way we interpret events and very significantly and positively alter how we experience our lives. Part 2 will examine, more specifically, how cognitive behavioural therapy can help us to achieve this.
BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).