How to Challenge Automatic Thoughts

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How to Challenge Automatic Thoughts: Our Mental Enemies

Have you ever realized you tend to see things in black or white, focus too much on negative or past events, compare yourself with others, and conclude this doesn’t bring you any benefits? If so, this is one of the situations where you might be caught up in the negative cycle of automatic thoughts.

Thoughts influence our emotions, feelings, and behaviors. Irrational thoughts lead to dysfunctional negative emotions that can be toxic and can affect the way we live. If we let them control us, thoughts can lead to anxiety, anger, depression, guilt, and hopelessness, and influence our overall well-being and the way we interpret everything that happens in our lives.

These thoughts can trap you in a vicious circle and make you believe you are doomed to always feel this way. For example, the more depressed you become the more automatic negative thoughts you have, which only makes you feel more depressed. The main goal of Cognitive Behavior Therapy is to help you break out of this vicious circle by helping you develop the skills in dealing with these negative automatic thoughts.

Automatic thoughts can be positive (realistic, goal-oriented) or negative (distorted, unproductive and work against us achieving our goals) that can really turn any sort of situation into a negative one.

Negative automatic thoughts can hide under different truths we are telling ourselves, such as:

1.    All or nothing thinking

Seeing things in black and white, a habit that usually turns out wrong. When it comes to reality, everything comes in different shades and being realistic of the good and bad sides of a situation can be a real help of not overgeneralizing the events (if something bad happens, you tend to generalize saying everything goes wrong).

2.    Overlooking the positives

Rejecting positive experiences and maintaining a negative belief even though it is contradicted by everyday experiences, or not enjoying a positive experience due to the belief that something bad will happen right away.

3.    Jumping to conclusion

Whenever you encounter a stimulus that is related to a past negative experience, you will jump to conclusion that something bad will happen to you, without checking all the facts of the likelihood of this event to happen.

4.    Should Statements

Having unrealistic expectations of yourself and others, and being rigid in your thinking. This often results in feeling guilty because you haven’t achieved what you “should” have. Language also includes “must” and “ought”.

5.    Personalization

Taking responsibility for something that is not your fault, or seeing yourself as the cause of a negative event that has nothing to do with you.

How to challenge the never-ending cycle of automatic thoughts:

Develop awareness of your thoughts

Develop the skill of identifying and listening to the negative messages you give to yourself. Look inside of your head and realize if you are you overthinking. Are you dwelling too much on the past? Remember, being aware of a problem is the first step in solving it. Writing the thoughts down will help you recognize and ultimately, challenge them.

Once you become aware of the ANT evaluate it and challenge it. Ask yourself: “is it helpful to think this way/does it serve me?” or “am I being realistic?” This means challenging your thoughts, and not identifying yourself with them.

Force your mind to engage

Focus at one thing at a time, without thinking at too many things at the same time. Identify when you are doing one thing and your mind is wandering, and bring it to the present moment.

Meditation can help you do this since it teaches you how to focus on the present moment and whenever your mind wanders, to understand this fact and bring it back to the current moment. This will give you a great sense of power, letting you feel in charge of your thoughts.

Separate yourself from your thoughts

Identifying with the thoughts gives them power, and forces you to believe that mental inner voice that sometimes is just like a bad friend. Just separating yourself from the thoughts and learning you are not the voice in your head can bring incredible changes to your life.

Redirect the negative thoughts

Whenever you have a negative thought, redirect it to a more useful one. Ask yourself: how can I redirect this thought? Change the thought into something positive instead of one that holds you back. This means using your mind to get what you want, not letting yourself be controlled by your mind.

The truth is we can’t stop them. Instead, we learn to manage and challenge them. Another great method for doing this is the triple R method.

The triple R method

1.    Record an upsetting event – write it down in details

2.    Rationalize it (write down the automatic thoughts related to the specific event) - address every irrational thought

3.    Replace the thought – talk back and get the negative thoughts out of your head. Ask yourself questions like: what’s the evidence for this? is this really possible to happen? Replace them as if you were talking to a friend. Challenge the thoughts and bring out the evidence. Respond them and replace them with more rational ones. (Instead of saying you’re life is a mess, replace the thought with something more realistic like “Today was challenging, I will do better next time”.

4.    Be persistent

As with any skill, interrupting ANT’s may take time and practice to master. Remember the voice in your head is not always you. Learn to disconnect of it.

It has been scientifically proven that people who get caught in automatic thoughts are more likely to get clinically depressed so it’s important to always take a step back and check all the facts before feeling trapped in this never-ending cycle. This means you need to have discipline and not to give up no matter how much you want to. With enough practice, your mind will learn new automatic thoughts that will be more favorable to you.

Sorina Maria