Automatic Thoughts

5 mins read

Sometimes, in the middle of the day, I will have this sporadic ping pong ball of an idea pop into my brain. It’s not helpful at all, and in some ways, these ideas can be responsible for setting me back. Sometimes, it just sounds like ‘it doesn’t matter.’ Other times, it’s more pervasive. These ‘automatic thoughts’ can sometimes lead to piss poor feelings about our body image, social circles, obstacles in our jobs or any other assortment of easy targets.

I think ‘automatic thoughts’ are one of those things that most people might not know a lot about. Like most personal development tools, knowing about what automatic thoughts are and how we can mitigate them is almost like a superpower once you learn about indexing this cognitive tool.

What is an automatic thought?

In the context of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), automatic thoughts refer to the rapid, spontaneous, and often unconscious thoughts that individuals have in response to specific situations. These thoughts are immediate and tend to be fleeting, influencing emotions and behavior. Automatic thoughts are a key concept in CBT, which is a therapeutic approach that focuses on the interconnection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Automatic thoughts can be both positive and negative, and they play a crucial role in shaping an individual’s emotional and behavioral responses to different situations. Negative automatic thoughts are often irrational or distorted and can contribute to emotional distress, anxiety, depression, or other psychological difficulties.

Imagine an automatic thought in your response.

You show up to the same house for the same medical.

Great. This guy. I’ll probably step in cat shit again.

You show up and see a homeless guy, he’s having a hard time keeping it together.

Great. This city is going to shit.

The way we think influences the way we feel.

If you can identify the instant, influential thought that rests behind the way you feel, you’ll have a much better chance of developing behaviors that align with your values instead of just rolling off of this automatic thought into the same loop of feelings and actions that may have built this automatic thought in the first place. To respond with astounding, professional, amazing service, you have to try to break down some of those automatic thoughts before they engage the way you feel.

Automatic thoughts in PTSD: Yeah, there too.

This is something great to learn about for all professional responders – no matter which band of colour goes through your flag. Check out the highlights from a course on automatic thoughts and PTSD:

– Negativity bias: we favor false alarms over no alarms and overlearn negative events.

– This results in more negative emotions but is adaptive for our survival.

– Negativity bias accounts for many PTSD symptoms.

– Negativity bias also results in automatic negative thoughts (ANTs).

– People who have been traumatized tend to have ANTs that are personal, pervasive, and permanent. –

– Additional ANTs include self-blame and hindsight bias.

So – how do I deal with automatic thoughts?

“Reality testing” is an actionable tool you can put into use today to evaluate the way you’re thinking. Here’s how it works;

When you catch yourself responding to an automatic thought, it’s time to use socratic questioning. This is the process of evaluating a thought or situation to determine how it lines up with reality.

If you’re caught in that loop we discussed above, start working these questions into your thinking:

  • Is there any other way to interpret this situation?
  • If my friend was going through this, what might I tell them?
  • What is the evidence for what I’m experiencing?

It might be worthwhile to write these questions down in your wallet or on your phone – somewhere you can easily reflect on the reality of your situation when you’re beside or inside a situation. Reality testing allows you to question those automatic thoughts instead of just riding the loop.

On the road, at home or alone in your own mind – addressing automatic thoughts are a vital component of operational readiness. Doing so may position you toward being a better person – which in turn satisfies the different parts of ourselves we promise to the people we serve.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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