How We Think

Man Thinking

Have you ever wondered how some people seemingly function exceptionally well through life, whilst you or others are constantly in the dumps or victim to unwanted events? From a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) perspective, it is the way we think, our thoughts processes that determines our emotions and consequent actions – whether positive or negative.

So what if I said you can actually change your thought processes to encourage more positive, productive and beneficial actions and thus consequences? What if anxiety, stress, lack of concentration or motivation is simply a matter of changing our automatic and unnoticed thought patterns to allow ourselves to live a more fulfilling, successful and peaceful life? Well let’s have a brief look over some common psychological methods and unveil what you may be doing that’s keeping you from what you desire.

One of the most important realisations is to understand that thoughts create feelings and a thought can be fleeting, unnoticed or prevailing. It is our “automatic thoughts” that are of most influence to our emotional and behavioural responses to situations, people, smells or stimuli.

Automatic Thoughts

Automatic thoughts are a brief stream of thoughts that arise in any situation that we are not consciously aware of. They can be fleeting, unnoticed, spontaneous or prevailing and are almost always believed no matter how illogical they may be. They are our individualised interpretations of a situation, smell, sound, image, person, conversation, or any physiological sensation that causes us to have a reaction. We can be completely unaware of the presence of an automatic thought, however we are very familiar with the feelings they create within us.

Automatic thoughts often have the following characteristics:

  • They appear in our minds as just one word or a short phrase, which function as a label for a group of memories, fears or guilt.
  • They can be triggered by visual images, sounds, smell or any physical sensation.
  • They are almost always believed, no matter how illogical they seem
  • They are spontaneous
  • They are often embedded with rules of “should”, “oughts” or “musts”
  • They tend to make a situation catastrophic
  • They are self-perpetuating and hard to turn off
  • They may differ to how the person actually acts or presents themselves
  • They create tunnel vision
  • They are learnt (and therefore can be un-learnt)

The second most important realisation is that events do NOT contain emotional content. It is our own perception of an event that causes emotion. Therefore, identifying and analysing irrational thoughts can take away some of its power.

Think ABC

Antecedents – behaviour – consequence (ABC) is a way to identify and target problematic thoughts and behaviours.

Antecedents are the triggers, such as thoughts, feelings, situations, cognitive or physical sensations, or any stimuli. that causes a behavioural response or occur before you engage in an unwanted habit.

Behaviour is how the person acts, feels or thinks immediately after the antecedent. It’s the behaviour that causes distress and thus is easily identified.

Consequences are what happens because of the behaviour. These can by physical, emotional or have a social impact. They can be positive or negative. When the consequence is positive, it increases the chance that it will be repeated; if the consequence is negative, it decreases the occurrence of that behaviour

For example, an antecedent may be feelings of anxiety, shaking and trembling, lack of concentrations; the behaviour is grabbing a cigarette; then the consequence is feeling calm.

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are thought processes in which cause negative reactions and feelings. The list below portray 11 common cognitive distortions that people tend to have in their thought processing that leads them to faulty assumptions and intensifies emotional and behavioural reactions. These distortions usually occur as automatic thoughts and cause you to function less optimally in your daily life or elicit unwanted nervous system or mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, addiction, stress and moodiness.

How do you use this information?

The first step towards change is knowledge and observation. Now that you know that your thoughts drive your behaviour, begin to start observing your thoughts. Do you use any of the unhelpful thinking styles? Once you become aware of this you can actively work to change it. When you identify these unhelpful thought patterns arising think about the opposite. For example rather than thinking ‘I’m a failure’ try to think ‘I tried my best and that is what is important’. Or rather than blaming yourself for something, try to think of how you can work to improve the situation now or even next time.

Using CBT is something that can profoundly affect the way that we view ourselves and the world in a positive way leading to reduction in anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and the behaviours that result from these emotions.

Written by mood specialist naturopath Daniela Mazzei. To make a naturopathic appointment with Daniela call Brisbane Natural Health on 07 3367 0337.

Image credit: centre for excellence online study program. 

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