Automatic Negative Thoughts: What They Are And How To Change Them

According to the Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging at the University of Southern California, the average person has about 70,000 thoughts per day, or about 48.6 thoughts per minute. That’s a lot of thoughts! What’s more, our thoughts can influence the way that we feel, which can affect the way that we behave. In other words, without realizing it, we may be giving our thoughts more power than they deserve.

Think about it. (See what we did there?) A thought is not a truth. Heck, it may not even be a belief. It’s simply a phrase, word, or sentence that comes to our mind for some unknown reason. However, if we make what psychologists call a cognitive distortion out of that thought, then it can start to influence us in negative ways.

What’s a cognitive distortion? Basically, it’s a way that our mind tries to convince us of a certain belief, that isn’t true. Most of the time, these distortions make us feel bad about ourselves, or reinforce negative ideas that we have.

The American psychiatrist Aaron Beck, and his former student, David Burns came up with several examples of cognitive distortions. Some of these distortions include:

  • Filtering – Focusing solely on one negative detail while taking out all of the positive ones.
    • Sounds Like:  “My nose is big, so my whole face looks disgusting.”
  • Black And White Thinking – Everything is either all or nothing. There is no middle ground or gray area.
    • Sounds Like: ” I failed one quiz, so I’m going to fail Freshman year. I may as well drop out.”
  • Jumping To Conclusions – Filling in the blanks on why someone is acting the way that they do, without asking them.
    • Sounds Like: ” She never called me back, so I know she’s mad at me. She probably hates me.”
  • Overgeneralization – Thinking that because something happened once, it will always happen.
    • Sounds Like: ” I fell when I went ice skating, so I’m clearly clumsy. I can’t do any sports.”
  • Catastrophizing – Always expecting the worst case scenario. And not in a funny way.
    • Sounds Like:  ” If I go camping, I’ll be bitten by a snake and die.”
  • Personalization – Thinking that you cause everything bad to happen.
    • Sounds Like:  ” It’s my fault that Jenny didn’t have a good time at the fair. I should have made more jokes.”

These are just a few of the cognitive distortions that Drs. Beck and Burns labeled. There are many more out there, and the over-thinkers among us are working hard at coming up with new ones every day! Luckily,Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is very effective at teaching people to discriminate between their negative thoughts, and reality.

For the most part, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps people identify their automatic, negative thoughts and gives them tools by which to test those thoughts. For example, a therapist might help a client question his thoughts, by looking for evidence to support them. When the client fails to find this evidence, he can see for himself that his thought is not true. For most clients, this realization comes as a huge relief, and can be the beginning of a whole new way of seeing the world.

If you would like to learn more about how Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy works, contact us. We are here to help!