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This week, we are talking about negative thoughts. These thoughts, have a lot of names, in fact, I’ve used a lot of different names for them on this podcast.
Automatic thoughts, thinking errors, cognitive distortions. The name isn’t important. The important thing is that the name points to a concept that, when understood, can be really powerful in helping you feel and behave in the way that you want.
The cognitive behavioral model says that we experience events, that trigger thoughts that trigger feelings that trigger behaviors. If we can intervene early in the chain, we can effect what is down stream.
Negative, automatic thoughts or thinking errors are the second link in the chain. I love teaching people to identify and alter these thoughts because it has a profound impact on the way that they feel and how they behave.
One common mistake/ struggle that most people have when they learn to identify and change their thoughts is they experience frustration when they have the thoughts. They will often come back to the next session and think that they have failed because they didn’t eradicate all of their negative thoughts during the week.
It's similar to people learning to meditate. They’ll say things like -- “I tried to meditate but it didn’t work. I had so many thoughts. I couldn’t stop them”.
But thoughts are a key part of meditation. The goal isn’t to STOP your thoughts. The goal is to notice them, recognize that they are just thoughts and lessen the control that they have on your life. When you practice meditation, thoughts have less power to distract or dictate the focus of your attention.
Learning to change your automatic thoughts is the same. The goal isn’t to eliminate these thoughts. The goal is to understand how to evaluate and alter them as they arise.
In fact, it often helps to anticipate that you will have negative thoughts. To expect them. Then, when they appear you aren’t shocked. You say to yourself-- “yep, just as I expected, my negative thoughts are here. I have a plan for this.”
This idea can seem really scary at first. “What, you are telling me to accept my negative thoughts about myself as part of the process? That’s insane”.
Well, it isn’t madness, and it actually might really help. My guess is that fighting with your thoughts and shoving them down and pretending like they aren’t there hasn’t been super effective. I know it hasn’t been effective for me (at least not in the long run).
Expecting negative thoughts has several benefits.
#1 It reduces suffering. You are already suffering by experiencing the negative thought. Thinking “I’m a failure” sucks! Being frustrated with yourself for having that thought, increases the suffering you are already experiencing as a result of that thought. Letting go of the self-judgment for having the thought in the first place may make you feel a lot better. It’s less work to untangle a second thought chain about your self-judgment.
#2 It helps us create distance between ourselves and our thoughts. You say “oh here are these thoughts again. Sam said this would happen. This must be normal. Other people must experience this too. If other people experience thoughts like this then I’m not a weirdo. This is just a thought.”
You are identifying these thoughts as something that is part of the package of depression and anxiety. A lot of people experience this and there is a clear path to move forward and make a change.
That’s very different from “OMG I am so anxious. This is so uncomfortable, I can’t handle this.I’m so weird and broken and different from everyone else. This must mean something about me”
#3 We are prepared. I used to be really freaked out about having depressive or anxious thoughts. I was constantly on the lookout for them but also weirdly blindsided every time they happened to me. I always thought “oh no. Here we go again. What am I going to do”.
Now, I expect that I am going to have these thoughts. It’s not so much, What if? It’s when. Probably today. Probably when I have to give a speech. Probably when I have to have a hard conversation with a client or a coworker. Probably when I drive in crazy traffic.
I’m not freaked out when they come because I reasonably anticipate them and I have a plan for what to do when they show up.
I identify the the thought. I ask myself a couple of key questions when they show up like “Is this a thinking error or is there validity to this?” “Is this a problem that I can solve?” “What would I tell someone I care about who was experiencing this situation?”
Then I focus on telling myself the truth. “I can experience any emotion that comes up.” “It’s really normal to have anxious thoughts because my brain is trying to keep me safe. I see that this isn’t real danger so I can proceed.”
If I spot that my thought is a thinking error, I will try to address that specifically.
I’ve talked about how to do some of these techniques more in depth in previous episodes. If you are interested, take a listen to Episodes 1,3, and 8.
Ok. So to recap, Negative thoughts aren’t necessarily “normal” but they are a typical manifestation of depression and anxiety.
Anticipating these thoughts helps us reduce suffering, create distance between ourselves and our thoughts and be prepared with a plan for how to deal with them when they arise.
Alright everyone. Thanks for your time and attention today. I love the privilege of speaking with you each week. I’ll talk to you next week!
Hey! I'm Samantha Osborne, a board certified counselor and host of the Creative Psych Podcast. I launched this show to help people just like you move from stuck to free. Want to connect? Come say hello on Instagram or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It makes my day to hear from listeners!