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How to Deal with Negative Automatic Thoughts

Lets start with assessing them….

People who are depressed typically think in a biased negative way. They have negative views of themselves (eg I’m no good), the world (eg Life has no meaning) and the future (eg I will always feel this way). People who are anxious typically think in a catastrophic way (eg I am going to die), the world (eg The World is unsafe) and the future (eg I will never cope). As you progress in therapy, you will learn to identify other patterns of thinking that affect the way you feel such as extreme anger, jealousy, envy, shame, embarrassment and other emotions

Automatic Negative Thoughts are the most basic form of thoughts. We are not trained to identify them. In the course of therapy, one of the most important aspects of therapy is to identify these automatic thoughts

They have several characteristics which are:

Automatic – they just pop into your head without any effort on your part

Distorted – they do not fit in with all the facts

Unhelpful – they keep you feeling the extreme feelings that you experience, make it difficult to change and stop you getting what you want out of life

Plausible – you accept them as facts and it does not occur to you to question them Involuntary – you do not choose to have them and they can be very difficult to switch off

These thoughts can trap you in a vicious circle and maintain the way you feel. For example, the more depressed you become the more automatic negative thoughts you have and the more you believe them and this in turn makes you feel more depressed. The main goal of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is to help you break out of this vicious circle by helping you develop the skills in dealing with these Negative Automatic Thoughts

Initially you may find it not easy to identify your automatic thoughts and deal with them. Challenging Automatic Negative Thoughts is like any other skill and it takes time and regular practice to be able to do it with ease. Your therapist will highlight the importance of dealing with Negative Automatic Thoughts. Don’t be discouraged if you have difficulties. In sessions, your therapist will help you to identify them and you will be set these as your homework so you will have opportunities to practise on your own. The more you do, the easier it gets and challenging your automatic negative thoughts will become natural to you

The first step in challenging your Automatic Negative Thoughts is to become aware of your thoughts and of their effects on you

These thoughts have an effect on you and make you feel bad, anxious, sad, depressed, hopeless, guilty and angry. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by these emotions, you can learn to use them as a cue for action. Notice when your mood changes for the worst and look back at what was running through your mind at the moment. Over the course of a few days, you will become more sensitive to changes in your feelings and to the thoughts that spark them off. You may find that the same thoughts (and beliefs) occur again and again

How to do it
The best way to become aware of your automatic thoughts is to write them down as soon as they occur. You can do this on the ABC Form

Step 1
Write down the emotion you experienced at C (Consequences) eg, anxiety, depression, guilt, hurt, shame, anger, jealousy. Rate the intensity of your feeling 0 – 100%

Step 2
Write down you actions at C, eg escape, becoming withdrawn, aggression, reassurance seeking, taking drugs, avoidance, safety behaviour etc

Step 3
Write down what triggered off your thoughts and feelings in the column marked A (Activating Event). Activating Events can be past, present or future events. Places, memories, people objects, images and physical sensations can all be Activating Events

Step 4
Write down your Negative Automatic Thoughts and beliefs about A. This should include your perceptions of the situation and what it meant to you

Step 5
Dispute D your negative thoughts and beliefs. Use the questions at the bottom of the ABC Form to help you. Label the thinking error for each distorted thought and belief

Step 6
For EACH of the original thoughts and beliefs at B, generate a balanced and realistic response. Write them down in the D column

Step 7
Re-rate the original emotion you noted down at C and put this down at E (Effect of alternative thoughts and beliefs)

Step 8
Write down at E, a plan for a more constructive behaviour in the future. This might be a different way of managing a situation or an experiment to test out a thought. Try to be as clear and specific as you can

There may be times when you cannot identify any thoughts or images as such. If so, then ask yourself what the meaning of the situation is. What does it tell you about yourself, the situation and your future? This may give you a clue as to why the situation is so depressing or what is making you angry, anxious etc. An argument, for instance, might mean to you that a relationship may be at an end with somebody or even that you may never be able to have a proper relationship with anyone

In the course of therapy, your therapist will help you develop other skills as the downward arrow to help you identify beliefs and meanings attached to situations. That is why it is important to complete your ABC Forms

Common problems in Recording Negative Thoughts
Ideally, it is best to record your thoughts and feelings immediately they occur. But of course, this is not always possible

It would be difficult to record your thoughts in the middle of a meeting. In this instance, it is often useful to record the thoughts on a piece of paper. Set aside time each day to do your ABC Forms, say, 30 minutes each evening to complete your homework. Run through an action replay and recall as much detail as possible of what happened, what was the situation (A), what your thoughts were (B), what you were feeling and your behaviour (C)

Beware of excuses that keep you from focusing on your thoughts and feelings. Often people say “I will do it later” or “It’s better to forget all about it”. You may find that you may be unwilling to face the thoughts. Perhaps you are afraid they will overwhelm you or think that they are stupid. It is quite natural for you to avoid thinking through unpleasant experiences but doing so is the best way to combat your depression, anxiety, anger etc. If you find yourself making excuses, this is probably because you hit upon something important so make yourself write it down. You can divert yourself by engaging in distraction (alcohol, drugs etc) but this won’t help you deal with your problems as the thoughts won’t go away

As your mood improves, you will find that you have less of a focus and attention towards the automatic negative thoughts. It is still useful to continue to work on these thoughts as it will provide you with practice on how to deal with these thoughts

Should your mood deteriorate or become anxious, you have the tool to deal with it before it becomes unmanageable. The ABC Forms should be kept as they are useful in helping you deal with your automotive negative thoughts when your mood becomes low and help you challenge your thoughts. As your mood improves, you can strengthen your disputes by adding to them.

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