The Trouble With Automatic Thoughts

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When we begin working with new clients, the psychologists at Shift Cognitive Therapy focus first on identifying why problems are occurring. A significant component of this process involves teaching clients to appreciate their patterns of automatic thinking. We have some control over our thoughts (if you want proof, go ahead and think of something, then change your focus and think of something else) and we use that to harness our brainpower every day. But there is another part of our thinking that we can’t influence quite as directly. An example of this can be drawn from the everyday process that our brain uses to categorize things.

If you saw a person walking a teacup poodle down the street your brain would instantly match that animal with others you have encountered before and let you know that what you were seeing was a ‘dog.’ It would do the same thing if you saw a much larger animal, like a Great Dane because the brain possesses a mental model for ‘dogs’ that is broad enough to include both breeds. The brain consults this model all by itself, without any need for conscious thinking (this process is automatic because it’s part of the life support system we call the Fight Flight Reaction). The brain is continually taking in new information, sorting and collating it, and learning new things along the way. It is also using that same information to confirm what it already believes to be true.

Automatic thinking can be dysfunctional when it’s based on old or incorrect information. For example, a lesson learned in childhood that one is weak might no longer apply once the person grows into an adult and learns how to ask for what they need. However, the brain might be so accustomed to believing that lesson is true that it no longer questions it and continues to act as if it is true. Such thoughts can influence behaviour in negative ways, resulting in life problems that appear to reinforce the incorrect belief and contribute to further challenges.

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Once our psychologists understand the specific nature of each client’s automatic thinking patterns, we can begin the process of teaching skills to challenge such thoughts and develop more adaptive ways of living.