Automatic Thoughts

Full disclosure, I have been trying to sit down and write this blog for the past 4 hours.  Instead, over that period, I  had vacuumed the kitchen 3 times, picked up after the kids twice, shopped online, texted some friends, wrote a workout, but I did not write a single word for this blog.  I was feeling too restless to sit…and write.


But why restless?  If you remember from my last blog on the thought model, our feelings are created by our thoughts.  But what was my thought that was causing me to feel restless?  It wasn’t entirely clear to me, so I had to close my eyes, channel restless, and analyze.


Why is it that my thought wasn’t obvious?  I wasn’t aware of the thought that was causing this restless feeling.  This is an automatic thought my friends. 


An automatic thought occurs in our mind

as a response to an action or event.


Automatic thoughts come from our intrinsic belief system based on past experience.  Our belief system is based on thoughts that we believe to be true. 


This is why we often feel “trapped” because we do not recognize that there may be an alternative way to think about a circumstance.  CBT and CBC challenges you to formulate an alterative thought.  


The good news is that we have the ability to change our automatic thoughts.  That’s right, with this new awareness, we can challenge our current automatic thoughts and create thoughts that you not only believe but will also give you a better result. 


With your familiarity of the model now, you should not be suprised that results are largely controlled by automatic thoughts. With repetition, you can create better results everyday with little to no effort.


Before we can change our automatic thoughts, we have a little ground work to do.  This ground work is very individualized and will involve self-reflection on your part.  You will need to identify which specific emotions build you up and which ones drag you down.  By becoming aware of the “builders” and the “draggers” you have taken the first step are on your way to creating desired results by adjusting your unique ratio of builders to draggers.  We are going to build upon your “builders”.


How To Train the Brain


Neuroplasticity refers to our brains ability to change.  It can be thought of as a muscle in that it becomes stronger at things we do often and weaker when we do things infrequently.  Impulsive behaviors are a consequence of neuroplasticity. 


Impulsivity is generated from our midbrain (i.e. our primitive brain) and challenges our prefrontal cortex (our conscious brain).  Our prefrontal cortex is committed to making good conscious decisions that will help us reach our goals.  Our primitive brain wants to feel good and often leads us towards behaviors that will hinder us from success (e.g. Think about that last piece of chocolate calling your name before bed).  When we allow our primitive brain to take control, our neuroplasticity reflects the behaviors that make us feel good immediately.


We all have themes in the thoughts we generate.  It is useful to recognize these patterned thoughts because herein lies many of our underlying automatic thoughts.  If you can list your themes and identify which emotions they cause, then you have unlocked the secret to challenging your automatic thoughts.


Emotions that build you up, builders, will lead you to your desired results.  Our job is to replace thoughts created by dragging emotions with thoughts that will give us more builders. 


Let’s look at an example.  Imagine you find yourself sitting at home feeling utterly unproductive in life and dragged down by the emotion “defeated”.  Upon self-reflection, you discover that your automatic thought is:  “I am never going to be successful in my career – Why am I even wasting my time trying?”  Taking a step back and reflecting on these emotions, you recognize that a building emotion such as feeling “motivated” or “optimistic” would be much more useful in helping you to achieve your goal.  You can challenge your automatic by eliminating unhealthy “draggers” and incorporating “builders” to create a revised, new thought:  “I am motivated to continue to grow in my career path… my determination has led to success in the past and I am optimistic that if I I put my mind to it, I be happy with the end result…”


Next time you are feeling “defeated”, you will be able to process the emotion and access to what your automatic thought may be.  You can then choose to continue feeling defeated.  Or, you can use your new alternative thought to chose an alternative feeling, such as feeling “motivated”.  If your desired result is compelling enough (it helps to use evidence that contradicts your draggers), you will make the effort to change your initial automatic thought.


Reinforcement is critical to retraining your brain.  Our automatic negative thoughts will be replaced by our alternative thoughts effortlessly if we continue to practice.  At first, it will take conscious awareness and effort, but soon you will find yourself efficiently eliminating unhelpful draggers and appreciating builders to revise your thoughts – in essence you have created a new way of thinking and a new trajectory for living a happy, productive life.



Name the emotion game



I like to have my clients identify their 3 most common negative emotions.  We become very familiar with these emotions.  We name them, give them a color, describe their texture, etc.  When we stop avoiding their existence, they have no control over us.  We don’t resist or react to them, but we allow them to be.


This is liberating and life changing because when an uncomfortable feeling presents itself, we can hang out with it and know everything about its history.  We have already picked it apart.  We will see this emotion again – maybe a slightly different shade or arising in a different circumstance – but regardless, each time we will gain a little more expertise.  By allowing the emotion to come in, we are keeping the power with our conscious brain; we are asking our primitive brain to step down.  We don’t need our primitive brain to suggest impulsive fight or flight reactions or avoidance behaviors to make us feel good temporarily because we can handle any emotion.


I think back to 4 hours ago when I first sat down to start writing this blog and was feeling restless… it is a common dragging emotion for me.  Why?  Because my automatic thought is that I need to write a perfect blog and anything less isn’t good enough.  And I know being perfect is impossible.  Therefore, I create a scenario that my blog will be very challenging to write if I want to come close to perfect.


Initially my primitive brain tried to avoid these unpleasant thoughts, but appreciated that there were dragging emotions at play and replaced them with the building emotions of feeling “inspired”.  Almost immediately, I found myself increasingly excited to share this knowledge with you, even if my delivery isn’t perfect.  Perhaps, I can make a person or two smile and realize that we are so uniquely similar.


Attacking Automatic Thoughts has changed my existence.


I use this the Cognitive Behavioral Coaching thought model every day in a variety of situations.  I will be the first to tell you that I’m not perfect, but I use this fool-proof system to keep myself in check and work through life’s stressors.  Prior to this system, my life seemed complete but I often felt the extremes of numbness or extreme emotions because I had difficulty sitting with my feelings. If you are interested in learning how to work through your own emotions through cognitive behavioral coaching, I’d recommend you schedule a consult with me to learn more about how you could transform your life.