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:
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:
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.
CBT, Core Beliefs and the Pre-verbal Mind
CBT doesn't only deal with correcting this quick automatic thinking. CBT also explores and changes deep rooted core beliefs and on-going assumptions we may have about ourselves and our world. It addresses our value system and related rules.
Since very early in our lives, our minds start gathering information. We don't only learn how things are called or that two plus two equals four. We also learn that when we cry somebody comes to comfort us, that when we break something people talk to us in an unpleasant tone. Little by little we learn important, deep rooted, beliefs about how lovable we are and how important things like success, pleasure and belonging are. We build an identity, based on multiple beliefs about who we are, how we are and what we are meant to do with our lives. We incorporate in our minds basic beliefs about the world being a safe opportunity or a threatening danger.
Many crucial things are learned before we can speak much or not at all. Knowledge of things can certainly be non-verbal as is obvious with animals. It is therefore not surprising that sometimes it's hard to explain, to put into words what we are going through. But the human mind has the power to understand and define emotions and beliefs that became part of our minds before we could speak. Before she can put it into words, a baby cries, feels sad and can even learn that her suffering doesn't matter to people around her. A core belief that she is not lovable may exist in parts of her mind that have never been accessed by the rational mind that can put it into words and process it.
Fast-forward to college years and we find this same girl breaking up with her boyfriend:
Eliciting automatic negative thoughts is not easy. Uncovering the related core beliefs is harder. She most likely never had the phrase "I am not lovable" in her mind. It was simply assumed. Only deep self questioning, or better still, questioning by a therapist can explore these deep rooted assumptions. Questioning what she was thinking about at the moment may not be enough. In the most front conscious part of her mind she may have been thinking "He is an idiot and he hurt me" which explains the anger, but not the sadness and even less her hopelessness. It may take for her to describe the details of her situation and how she sees what she is going through retroactively to fully appreciate her interpretation of the situation. Likewise, she was not thinking at the moment "I am a female", or "I am a college student." This are facts in her mind that were part of her perception of reality. She "knew" this information very well at the moment, but she wouldn't say she was "thinking" about it. In the same way she may have "known" herself to be not worthy of love, even if she was not "thinking" about it. This basic core belief or assumption is crucial to understand the full emotional impact of the stressful situation she was dealing with.
Practice Makes Cognitive Control of Emotions Effortless and Continuous
Cognitive control of emotions can help you remain calm under pressure, stay positive in moments of adversity, and keep you from becoming overwhelmed by anger or sadness.
Controlling your emotions with cognitive reasoning can be exhausting and the rational brain avoids the effort of correcting the intuitive understanding that triggers intense emotions. It is therefore, not surprising that many unnecessary intense negative emotions go unchecked. With the automatic thinking, that explains them, unchallenged.
Cognitive control of emotions can be trained to occur automatically. Once a brain function becomes automatic, it also becomes efficient, fast, unconscious and relatively effortless.
If you are able to practice cognitive control of your emotions to the point of making it automatic, this will enable you to exert continuous control over negative feelings. Just like your brain controls complex muscle movements when you are walking up the stairs, your brain can be trained to process negative emotions without you needing to even make a decision to start doing so.
Consistently identifying the moments and situations when negative emotions are triggered, together with an exploration and correction of the associated distorted thinking, plays a central role in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Practicing CBT exercises is not an optional, but an essential component of this treatment modality because it facilitates the gradual incorporation of the cognitive skills learned into the patient's mental life.