Negative Automatic Thoughts
Learning how to dispute negative automatic thoughts is a key component of two very important counseling theories, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy.
According to Mathew Mckay in his book, Thoughts and Feelings,..."Thoughts cause feelings. This is the essential insight of cognitive therapy. All of the cognitive techniques that have been developed and refined in the last half of the twentieth century flow out of this one simple idea; that thoughts cause feelings, and many emotions you feel are preceded and caused by a thought, however abbreviated, fleeting, or unnoticed that thought may be."
So what are automatic thoughts? Well, they are the dialogue I have with myself all the time.
Stop for a second and just listen to the words you are saying to yourself right now, about having to stop and listen to your internal dialogue, but those kinds of thoughts are going on in the background of your daily activities all the time.
For example, as I type this page, I am trying out various combinations of words and thoughts, and that is self-talk.
McKay describes it this way. "You are constantly describing the world to yourself, giving each event or experience some label. You automatically make interpretations of everything you see, hear, touch, smell, and feel. You judge events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, safe or dangerous. This process colors all of your experiences, labeling them with private meanings."
The one thing that no cognitive behavioral therapist addresses is the rapidity or the speed at which your brain supplies you those labels and judgements.
Dr. Daniel Amen says those thoughts travel through our brain at about 268 MPH, and Csikszentmihalyi says we process sensory data at the rate of 7 bits of information every 1/18th second, which is twice as fast as I can blink my eyes.
We process experiential data, sound waves at the ear drums, photons through the lens of they eye, pressure from your chair, smells, and tastes, and we are especially susceptible to negative automatic thoughts when it comes to processing facial expressions and tone of voice.
So our brain is describing our experiences fast, and we are changing our feelings, which means hormonal bath and neurotransmitters, fast.
Besides their speed, automatic thoughts often repeat habitual themes, which is how automatic thoughts can become negative automatic thoughts, because they have the same believable quality as direct sense impressions.
But automatic thoughts and negative automatic thoughts are not based on direct sense impressions.
For example, again according to McKay, chronic anger, anxiety, or depression results from a focus on one particular group of automatic thoughts to the exclusion of all others. The theme of anxious people is danger. They are preoccupied with the anticipation of dangerous situations, forever scanning the horizon for future pain, while depressed individuals focus on the past and obsess about the theme of loss, or they focus on their own failings or flaws. Chronically angry people repeat automatic thoughts about the hurtful and deliberate behavior of others.
Preoccupation with these habitual themes creates a kind of tunnel vision which you think only one kind of thought and notice only one aspect of your environment. The result is one predominant and usually quite painful emotion, because you are looking at only one set of cues in the environment to the exclusion of all others.
Automatic thoughts are learned, and perhaps accompanied with an strong emotion, resulting in what emotional intelligence expert Daniel Golemen would call an amygdala high jack, a powerful emotional and physiological experience related to the memory of a cue.
For example, I had a client not too long ago who struggled to come to my office because of her experience of being in a serious traffic accident about 20 years ago in the street right in front of our office.
The intensity of the memory made it hard for her to even drive on our street.
And that describes the learning involved.
Luckily for us, most of our automatic and negative automatic thoughts can be disputed, or argued with inside of our own head.
The problem is the physiology associated with automatic negative thoughts is really fast.
Pleasant Automatic Thoughts?
So it is possible to create negative automatic thoughts, then it ought to be possible to create positive automatic thoughts.
Over the years of my work in this field, I have utilized a number of phrases or acronyms to change the chemistry inside my body from anxiety or anger to something more pleasant, like contentment.
"Gratitude is the Attitude" works very well to remind me quickly that there are others in the world who have far more difficult struggles than I do, and it helps me to remember very difficult times in my own life, which I can return to if I so choose.
With a bit of gratitude, I can get back to solving the problem, rather than stressing my body.
Another phrase is "What is the next right thing to do?", which usually means change the thought to change the feeling.
I am prepared to repeat that process second by second of need be, and a wonderful tool which has grown from new scientific discoveries about the brain in the heart is helping.
That tool is HeartMath, and it utilizes heart rate variability biofeedback to keep my heart rate coherent, or the time between heartbeats very consistent.
Want to feel good, no matter how many alligators your butt is in?
So if I want to really work effectively with negative automatic thoughts, then I should be taking care of my brain's fitness,correct?
Well, now you can do that with a number of computerized brain fitness programs that teach you to pay split second attention to sensory data. You will learn to increase attention and short term memory which will help isolate negative automatic thoughts for immediate alteration and more pleasant feelings.
Would You Share Something That You Are Grateful For?
When I was beginning my personal growth journey, a wise person told me that when I was feeling resentful or afraid or sad, that I should remember the phrase "gratitude is the attitude" when I was ready to feel better. That phrase has helped me feel better tens of thousands of times.
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