Verity is a physics with teaching BSc (Hons) graduate. In her spare time, she likes to cook, read and play video games.
What Are Automatic Thoughts?
Based on previous experiences, upbringing, culture, religion, and many other factors, we often interpret and give meaning to events happening around us without even realizing it. This is perfectly normal and our brains interpret the world around us in order to help us navigate it better, we learn to avoid situations that might be dangerous and we learn to engage in behaviours that bring us joy.
We may have particular thoughts, that lead to us experiencing particular emotions. For example, if you think "I am in danger and I cannot cope" this will lead to feelings of fear and anxiety. If you think "I am being treated unfairly and I will not let someone get away with this", it leads to feelings of anger and frustration.
It is normal to feel anxious or angry in situations where it is warranted, however, these automatic thoughts become a problem when we are engaging these thoughts and feelings in situations where it is not warranted. For example, avoiding situations that we believe are dangerous when there is no evidence that any harm would come to us. Or indulging in dangerous habits, such as drug use, because you associate positive feelings with it, when it is actually bad for you.
Automatic thoughts pop into your head without you even realizing, some people refer to it as "intuition" or "a gut feeling". Automatic thoughts are often immediately believable and we accept them straight away without stopping to question their accuracy or validity. But it is important to remember that not all thoughts are based in fact, so thoughts based on only our reactionary emotion may not be accurate or helpful. Especially when you consider that our thoughts are very specific to ourselves and two people who experience the same encounter, might feel differently about it based on their past experiences and how they have come to interpret the situations around them.
These automatic thoughts are often repeated. If you think something persistently, you might start to believe that it is true, even if there is no evidence of this.
This article will explore 10 different styles of unhelpful thinking, every person engages in these types of thoughts on a regular basis, so do not be worried if you identify with some (or even all) of them. It is important to learn how to intervene and challenge these thoughts.
Unhelpful Thinking Styles
1. Black and White Thinking
This is sometimes called 'All or Nothing Thinking'. This style of thinking is commonly used by perfectionists and high achievers, where the main type of thoughts follow the theme of, "Either I do it 100% correctly or I don't do it at all" and "If I don't do it perfectly then I am a failure". These types of thoughts can lead to procrastination out of fear of not performing perfectly
These types of thoughts are common in everyone. This type of thinking is where you assign labels to yourself, or to other people, based on very little evidence. Common thoughts in this category include "I could not do this task, I am completely useless", "I did not go to the party, I must be a loser", "How could they have forgotten about the meeting, they must be an idiot". These types of thought allow very little room for empathy and can result in unfair snap judgments, especially of the people around you. Negative labelling of people around you may suggest that you are struggling to empathise with them or that you may be looking down on people unfairly.
This style of thinking usually follows the theme of "this is all my fault". Personalisation can either be: blaming yourself for events that are completely outside of your control, or blaming other people for something that is your fault. Both of these are just as bad. It is important to learn how to accept that some events are outside of your control. It is also extremely important to accept when you have made a genuine mistake and to admit and make amends for it, rather than trying to blame others.
This type of thinking is always especially damaging when it pertains to inter-personal relationships, these type of thoughts follow the theme of "everything always ends up ruined", "you always/never do this". Being overly broad when drawing conclusions, or interpreting a non-existent pattern based on a single stand-alone event, means that you are simply refusing to see the reality of how these situations turn out. It is important to look at details, you can quite quickly fix some of these issues with self-reflection and your language, e.g. "It is only when I leave my work too late that it gets ruined". Over-generalisation in relationships can lead to the other party feeling ignored, underappreciated, or as though they are being manipulated.
5. Mental Filter
This type of thinking involves only paying attention to certain types of evidence. For example, if you have 10 items on your to-do list and complete 9, you may ignore how much you have achieved and only focus on the one thing that you have not done. With this type of automatic thought you are only noticing what you feel are failures, rather than giving your failures and successes equal weight.
6. Emotional (Reactionary) Reasoning
These type of thoughts are based on assumptions. You feel something and then immediately assume an outcome based on that one thought or feeling. For example "I feel embarrassed so I must have been an idiot". This type of thinking is prone in people who are hyper-aware of social situations, and it may be that you feel embarrassed about something you did when in actual fact no-one noticed it or no one thought it was strange at all.
7. Disqualifying the Positive
This is a type of thinking where you invalidate your own successes, common thoughts that are associated with this style of thinking are "Well that doesn't count because I had help", "That was just a practice". In this type of thinking you are discounting positive things that have happened, or that you have achieved, when they are actually very valid.
8. Must and Should
Must and should thinking is one of the most common and identifiable types of unhelpful thinking. When you start thing about something you can do as "I must/should" it can make you feel very guilty if, for some valid and justifiable reason, you cannot. It can make you feel as though you are fighting a losing battle, or have already failed. If you apply should and must thinking to other people, it can lead to lots of feelings of frustration. If you do not consider the valid and justifiable reasons someone else might have for not behaving the way that you wanted them to, then it can lead to labelling, the mental filter, over-generalising and other unhelpful styles of thinking.
9. Jumping to Conclusions
There are to different types of jumping to conclusions.
The first is Mind Reading. This is where you assume what other people are thinking without asking them, "I didn't offer him any sweets so he must think I'm selfish and mean". When you engage in mind reading, you are not giving the other person the opportunity to explain how they are feeling.
The second type is Fortune Telling. This is where you predict an outcome without any evidence and it can lead to unnecessary anxiety and disappointment. E.g. "If I don't finish this by tomorrow I will be fired and no one will like me", or "If I buy this person a surprise they will forgive me and be happy with me again". This style of thinking ignores communication, which is a vital part of any interpersonal relationship.
10. Minimisation and Magnification
With this style of thinking you are over or under-estimating the importance of problems, it is often used as a coping mechanism. In some cases, you might shrink a very important problem down and try to pretend that it is small to justify avoiding it. In other cases, you might disproportionately act as though a problem is really big, and makeup reasoning to justify this, in order to validate feelings of anxiety that you have surrounding it.
How To Combat Unhelpful Thoughts
It is not easy to combat these automatic thoughts, and it requires time, hard work and a level of self-awareness that you may not yet have. But there are certain steps that you can take. It is very helpful to buy a notebook for these steps as they involve writing down your thoughts.
Step 1: Identify when you are feeling unpleasant moods. Are you upset? Angry? Write this down and rate it on a scale from 1-10.
Step 2: Go back over any situation that might have caused this, or the situation that you are in currently. Go over the details: what, where, when, with whom, etc.
Step 3: Identify what thoughts were/are going through your head. Write them all down from small fleeting ones to large recurring thoughts.
Step 4: Dig deeper into these thoughts and ask these questions of them:
What is the worst that could happen?
If this thought is true, what does it say about me?
What does/would this say about other people?
What would this say about the future?
Once you have questioned these thoughts, identify a key thought and circle it, this will be a thought that is investigated more thoroughly.
Step 5: Write down all of the objective, factual evidence that supports this key thought.
Step 6: Write down all of the objective, factual evidence that suggests that this key thought is inaccurate. Highlight any unhelpful thinking styles that you might be using.
Step 7: Ask if this key thought is accurate 100% of the time. Could there be another way to interpret this situation? If so, find that evidence and write it down.
Step 8: Identify if there is a more balanced and alternative thought that is more accurate to describe the situation. If there is, then move on to the next steps. If there is not, and your thoughts and feelings are accurate then instead look at ways that you could solve your problem, or seek help with it from another source.
Step 9: Re-evaluate your mood. Now that you have a new, more balanced thought, try to identify how you are feeling now, are you calm or relieved? Are you feeling nothing or apathetic? Rate this mood from 1-10.
After going through these steps you will start to notice recurring patterns in thoughts and hopefully, you will become more able to intervene during an unhelpful thought. You will get to a stage where you don't need to write anything down and instead you might just need 5 or so minutes to reflect, re-evaluate and adjust. It is always difficult, to begin with, but it gets easier with time.
Identifying unhelpful thinking styles is difficult, it takes time. Do not worry if you see thinking styles on this list that you identify with, we all use them from time to time. A lot of the time, our reactions, and our instincts are correct and we can trust them. But we all fall into traps of unhelpful negative thinking without even realising.
Taking the first step by becoming self-aware about them, is extremely important. Going through these exercises as often as you like, and completely the steps within them can be majorly beneficial and can help you reduce anxiety and improve your day-to-day inter-personal relationships.
Best wishes on your journey to self-improvement.
Share Your Opinion
© 2018 VerityPrice
Fin from Barstow on September 04, 2018:
A very nice essay with good points and purpose. Aesthetically pleasing in your design and presentation.
A lot of people probably think they are alone in having automatic thoughts when in reality they are quite ubiquitous. It's hard to control your thinking patterns and your exercises give a good sense of pace.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to that our mind can make you right - you can fix yourself.
Denise W Anderson from Bismarck, North Dakota on September 01, 2018:
Learning these distorted thought processes was the most helpful thing I did in learning to combat my depression. I am grateful to the psychologist who taught me this process and had me do the paperwork necessary to make it a habit. I use it when helping others deal with their depression.