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  • Writer's pictureErika Agbabian, AMFT

Understanding Your Automatic Thoughts

You’re sitting in the lobby of an unfamiliar office building, waiting for your name to be called to begin the interview you’ve been anticipating for weeks. You run through all the answers you’ve practiced in your head over and over again until you’ve practically memorized every word. Finally, they call your name. The interviewer is ready for you. Your stomach drops. As you stand up and walk towards the interview room, you feel your chest tighten and your heart start to beat out of your chest. Everything you’ve worked for is riding on this moment, yet you feel like your brain is frozen and you’ve somehow forgotten every answer you’ve been rehearsing all week. Instead, your mind is rushed with a million thoughts, each one stripping you more and more of your self confidence. “I’m going to fail.” “I’m not good enough.” “I’m going to make a fool of myself.” Why does the voice in your head urge you to escape the situation when the one thing you need to do to succeed is face it head on?

Whether it was this situation or a different one, most of us have berated ourselves with negative thoughts like these at some point or another. In cognitive behavioral therapy, we refer to the instantaneous and habitual thoughts that occur in response to a stimulus as “automatic thoughts” or “hot thoughts”. We’re not even aware that we’re doing it and yet we can’t help but form these negative thoughts and judgements. In the modern day world, our automatic thoughts can often cause more harm to ourselves than good. So why then do we tend to beat ourselves down in the moments we need to embrace our self confidence the most? Why are our brains programmed to have this response when facing uncomfortable or fearful situations? The answer to these questions lie in our human evolution.

The physiological stress response you experience when facing anxiety-provoking situations is typically referred to as your “fight or flight” response. It’s a survival mechanism caused by a release of hormones from your sympathetic nervous system to prepare you to either fight or flee in situations you perceive as dangerous. The automatic thoughts that sometimes occur alongside this response are programmed deep within you as well, serving their own purpose in the survival mechanism. A small structure in your temporal lobe called the amygdala plays an important role in triggering automatic thoughts. This neural structure is the center for fear and anxiety in your brain and is responsible for the quick decision-making that’s necessary when facing perceived danger.

A long time ago, when humans were hunting and gathering, automatic thoughts triggered by the amygdala could mean the difference between life or death during a dangerous encounter. There’s no question that it was important to respond quickly and automatically to the dangerous stimuli lingering all around, so you’ve been programmed to anticipate a true threat at the first indication of danger or fear. For example, when your hunter-gatherer ancestors heard a distant rustle in the bushes, it was much more favorable to assume the worst case scenario, that there was a ferocious bear hiding in the brush, than it was to believe that it was probably nothing. Consequently, in a situation like this one, your body will instantaneously formulate worst-case-scenario-type thoughts to compel you to flee the potentially dangerous situation.

We can thank our amygdala when we’re walking home alone in the dark or facing a natural disaster, yet this response does not translate so seamlessly to most of the everyday stressors that we encounter in our modern day lives. When you’re facing a high stakes interview, stepping up on stage in front of a big audience, or walking into the restaurant for that big date, your amygdala might instinctively perceive the fear you’re feeling as it would perceive possible danger in a real life or death encounter and react accordingly.

Now that you understand how deeply this response is ingrained in our DNA, it should be clear that you cannot avoid the experience of automatic thoughts. However, you can more effectively cope with them. By accepting that you will inevitably encounter automatic thoughts, you may learn to let go of the hold that they have on you. This is because the power of automatic thoughts lies not in their mere existence, but instead in your belief that they are true. Through a process known in therapy as defusion, you can learn to observe your thoughts more objectively and let them pass without necessarily believing that they are true. Several different methods can be taught and practiced to master this concept. If you are one of the many people who struggle with anxiety and wish to be set free from the hold that your negative thoughts have on you, seeking out therapy and practicing these methods may make a world of a difference for restoring your sense of control over the thoughts that hold you back.

To learn more about your automatic thoughts and how to engage with them please schedule an appointment with me. I work with clients located in California.

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