Automatic Thinking, Emotions and the Rational Mind

Having automatic thoughts is good for you. No, not good, necessary. Automatic thinking saves our lives daily. Automatic thinking is fast, efficient and closely linked to emotional responses. This ensures we react, and live.

You are driving on the interstate at 70 miles per hour and all of a sudden you see a horse running close ahead. You immediately put your foot on the break, grab the wheel firmly and your heart pounds faster. Before you have time to realize that what you saw is a horse, and way before you could give yourself any rational explanation of how this could be dangerous, you have already reacted.

Having automatic thoughts and reactions to situations is a good first strategy for the human mind, but it makes mistakes that our slower rational mind needs to correct.

You are walking down the sidewalk and somebody almost runs you over with a bike. You become immediately angry and think, or better said, assume: "Some bully thinks he can treat me like this. I am being disrespected." You then realize it's a young child with little control over his bike and no intention of disrespecting you. You stop feeling angry and maybe feel worried about the safety of the kid.

Not all misperceptions and wrongful assumptions are so easy to correct. Long lasting interpretations of events and even core beliefs about ourselves and the world around us can be erroneous.

Your boss may have a constant frown on her face and every time you interact with her you leave feeling depressed, thinking you are not appreciated and predicting your career will never progress. Assumptions like this are worth questioning.

The moments when we feel strong unpleasant emotions are key opportunities when to question what our automatic mind is up to. We can't analyze every single event and circumstance around us, this is why we need a mind that understands many things quickly and without any effort. But when wrongful assumptions make us suffer or may influence important decisions in our lives, then challenging them is critical. It can change our lives.

Feeling down after meeting with your boss should trigger an analysis of what's making you feel that way. And here's how you do it with CBT, using MindQuire:

  • Situation: Walking back to my desk after meeting with boss to give update on project. During meeting boss looked unhappy
  • Emotions: Down, concerned, tired
  • Automatic Thoughts: My boss dislikes me. She is not happy with my work. I am not succeeding in my professional life. I am a loser. I'll always be stuck in a mediocre job.

Being aware of all this negative thinking is a crucial first step. The alternative would be to settle with the idea that you feel sad because your boss makes you sad. If you can't change your boss, you'll just have to continue feeling sad. Helplessly. But now that you became aware of the connection between your negative thinking and the negative emotions you felt, you have a starting point from where to fight these feelings. The central premise being that there is room for improvement in the way your automatic mind is thinking about this. And this is most likely the case. Extreme emotions are linked to extreme thinking. The automatic mind thinks, in its quickness, in extremes an absolutes. It uses clear concepts, like "always" or "loser." The rational mind can analyze the same facts, slowly and with effort, and come up with more balanced compromises; like "for a long time" or "not as successful as I could have been."

CBT is not positive thinking. The idea is not to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. CBT is not brain-washing to force happiness into you. After your strong emotions lead you to identify automatic negative thinking, that you may have not been completely aware of, the goal is to replace it with rational and robust ideas that you believe to be true. In order to come up with an alternative way of thinking that meets these high standards we need to do some work. The slower, effortful rational mind needs to come to the rescue. Here's an example of how CBT techniques, offered by MindQuire, can help you come up with alternative balanced thoughts:

  • Thought being challenged: "I am a loser"
  • Evidence in favor of "I am a loser":
    • My boss doesn't seem to be happy with my performance today
    • I have classmates with much better jobs than mine
    • I thought I would be further along in my career by now
  • Evidence against "I am a loser"
    • I can and usually produce quality work
    • I have got good reviews before
    • I make enough to support myself
    • I am certainly not a loser in other aspects of life
  • Balance alternative statement to "I am a loser:"
    • "I am somewhat successful, but have not achieved all my career goals"

This alternative balanced and more realistic statement may still cause a negative emotion, but much less extreme. Furthermore, these negative emotions are more likely to be useful. Feeling some level of discontent may serve as a motivator to try hard and change circumstances at work or to try and move to a better one.