Noticing Automatic Thoughts

Have you heard the term “automatic thought”? Its presence can be quiet but powerful. Sometimes people tell me “I have no thought at all! I’m just on the train and BAM! I’m flooded with nothing but fear. No thought. Just emotion. Unbearable emotion.”

Such a common experience.

Here’s the thing. Dig a little deeper. Slow it down. Check in with a curiosity. Often there is an automatic thought that either precipitates or follows the emotion in some chicken and egg sequence. You don’t need to figure out the order; they likely influence each other. For example…

“I’m trapped” [thought] —> anxiety [emotion]—> “I can’t bear to feel this way” [thought]—-> heightened anxiety [emotion]—> “This feeling will make me freak out, flail around, and people will think I’m crazy” [thought]  —> heightened anxiety [emotion]

Take a breath. You don’t need to make the anxiety go away. You really don’t. Take a breath to give yourself space to ask “What is the thought”? Identify the actual words. Write them down. Notice them. Shift your stance from being entirely enveloped by the whole experience to being an observer. Watching it. Noting thoughts that might be amplifying the intensity of the emotion. Or thought that keep the emotion company.

Even if you already know what the thought is, check in at the time it arises because it’s this shift in stance when you’re activated that begins to shift the system. You may decide to challenge the thought (“What’s the actual evidence that I physically flail when I feel intense anxiety?”) or you may decide just to notice the thought without giving it undue attention (“Oh, ya, I know this thought. I’ll let it pop up and run its course.”) or you may decide to play with the thought by embracing it and even taunting it (“Welcome back Oh Familiar Panic Thought… You Can’t Hurt Me….Bring It!!!”). Consider using a thought record…. there are lots of apps that let you do this on your phone. I like CBT Thought Record Diary by MoodTools (Android or iOS). Or visit this site to download old school but effective forms.

Thoughts are just thoughts, and learning to change your relation to them can have a significant impact. But you first have to train yourself to notice them. Give it a shot.

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