Automatic Thought Processes

It would seem that you go through life reacting to various situations without really giving these reactions much thought.  Someone says something to you and you respond in some way, often unaware of the reasons behind your responses.  You witness an event or someone’s actions and you decide, whether it is a good or bad.  You continuously make judgments about people, events, things, and thoughts you may have as being good or bad, or worthwhile or not.  For the most part, this process of witnessing something and judging is not problematic.  However, these seemingly automatic reactions can cause you grief and pain sometimes.  They can often result in your feeling sad, frustrated, and angry or any other number of emotional conditions you find yourself in.  Sometimes it seems as though you are not in complete control of your emotions without understanding why.  In most situations, if you can be aware of the underlying reasons for your emotions, you can control them.  That’s what this discussion is about, understanding the origins of your reactions to events and experiences in life.

Automatic thought processes are thoughts you have practiced that result in experiencing some feeling or emotion.  You practice these processes to the point that when presented with a certain situation (usually somewhat similar to a previous experience) you react almost automatically, without any apparent conscious effort on your part.  But, I can assure you that even if this process takes the blink of an eye to take place, you actually “think” before you react, or feel an emotion.  The emotions you feel as a result of these thought processes are both beneficial, such as laughter, happiness and joy, and detrimental, such as despair, sadness, depression, and anger.  While it might make for an interesting study to try to understand what makes you laugh we will let these “good” emotions stay the way they are for now.  What we are concerned with are those emotions that hurt you, or cause you problems such as sadness, frustration, fear, and anger.  None of these negative emotions by themselves are harmful until they become uncontrollable, cause you undue distress, or cause harm to you or others.  It is these harmful emotions that bring most people into a counselor’s office, and they are the ones we will primarily be dealing with.

Where do these automatic thoughts come from?  The origin of these automatic thoughts is not a mystery.  As you grow up you are provided with many “models” which you witness and subsequently use to model your own behavior.  These models are often quite powerful and are usually people very close to you such as, parents, siblings, relatives and friends.  The stronger the attachment to the person the more powerful the influence they have on you.  Search your past and discover those people in your life who have been most influential.  All influence is not negative and to be sure you have had people in your life that presented excellent examples of behavior for you to follow. 

So, what do you do with these witnessed behaviors?  You witness a particular behavior from one of these influential models and then incorporate similar behavior into your own repertoire of behaviors.  It is important to note here that it is often not the actual witnessed act, or person that influences you the greatest.  Rather, it is your perception of the witnessed act, or person.  I’ll discuss the problems with your perception in another section, but suffice it to say that our perception, more often than not, is not very accurate.  Once you have witnessed a particular behavior that you think is a good behavior, or is one that is right for you, you try the behavior out for yourself in future situations.  If the outcome of the future situation is positive you continue to behave in that manner.  If the outcome is negative you will usually discard that behavior and search for a new or different way to act in similar situations in the future. 

For those positive outcomes the behavior is consolidated in your mind into a single thought.  Your brain is very efficient and strives to use the least amount of brainpower needed to store and retrieve information.  It is because of this efficiency that these behaviors become a single automatic thought.  Instead of having to recall the original behavior that you witnessed and the subsequent processing of the behavior, you now have a single trace in your mind to the behavior that your brain accesses in a single act.  There is however, almost always a precursor to the actual outward behavior.  It might be best described as a “welling up”, a physical sensation that precedes the acting out of the behavior.  When this “welling up” takes place, the automatic thought process has already taken place, and you are simply preparing to carry out the behavior.  These physical actions are usually a sense of tension, a tightening in the chest, a flush in the face, or a rush of adrenalin, that prepares you for the forthcoming action. 

Now comes the tricky part.  Being able to recognize the onset of one of these “automatic thought processes” is the first step in gaining control over your own emotions.  This will require some thought on your part.  You will have to learn to recognize those types of situations, as well as the presence of those “welling up” sensations, that typically result in one or more of your negative emotions.  Being aware of these situations and sensations will help you recognize the onset of these automatic thought processes, and once this can be achieved you can move on to the next step.

The next step is to STOP!  Short of a few life or death situations, most of life is such that you can easily afford to take a moment or two to do some thinking before acting.  There is virtually never an instance that requires an immediate reaction from you.  So, relax, take some time to think about what is happening.  When you are relaxed, ask this question:  What IS happening?  Do your best to view the event, situation or behavior through some realistic looking eyes.  Exactly what IS happening?  Do this without such thoughts as “I don’t like this” or “this makes me angry”, etc.  Simply view what is occurring before your eyes. 

Realizing that you are not in a big hurry to react, you now can consider some more realistic and rational, alternative behaviors.  At least now you will have the time to decide for yourself how you want to feel or act.  This is vital, so take a minute and let this concept sink in.  Now consider the possibilities.  Now that you are in control of your emotions, realizing you have time to decide what to do, or what not to do, you can now make a clear, rational decision, based on the reality of what lies before you.  You will have to practice this exercise several times before you actually become proficient at it, but don’t give up, it can be done.  Like most anything else in life, the more you do something the easier it becomes, and the better you can perform.