What Are Automatic Negative Thoughts?

My therapist often mentions automatic negative thoughts and how important they are. She’s done a good job of explaining how they work. I think I have a better understanding now of what automatic negative thoughts are and why they matter in my CBT therapy.

My therapist said that we usually have two streams of thoughts in our mind at the same time.

  • One stream of thought is the one that we are always aware of. It is whatever we are consciously thinking about. Like right now I am thinking of the best words I can use to explain to you what I just learned about automatic negative thoughts.
  • The second stream of thought is like a running commentary that evaluates what’s happening and how we are dealing with the situation. This second stream of thought is telling me now things like “I am doing such a poor job at explaining what automatic thoughts are,” “I shouldn’t have any hopes that understanding this better is going to help me feel better.”  This second stream of thought is a rather automatic flow of criticism that is hard to stop. But what I can do is be more aware of it. Automatic negative thoughts come from this less conscious stream of thoughts.

Knowing what automatic negative thoughts are is only a start. The trickiest part of the process is learning to catch myself and identify the automatic negative thoughts. Here’s how I am going about it:

First, whenever I am having any stressful emotion I pay attention to what’s happening, what I am feeling, and all that is in my mind at the moment. Then I go ahead and record a Stress Log exercise.

Then, I try to become aware of everything that is in my mind at the moment. How I am assessing the situation and myself, what kind of commentaries or judgment I have about what is happening. If I have a hard time finding any automatic negative thoughts I ask myself the following questions:

  • What does the stressful situation mean to me?
  • What does this mean about myself and my self-esteem?
  • Am I predicting anything bad about the future because of what’s happening now?
  • Are there any images or videos playing in my head?
  • Could I be assuming any consequences of the current situation that are making me feel so bad?
  • How do I judge what is currently happening? My role? The consequences for my future?

After I fill out a Stress Log, including a description of the situation, my feelings and my automatic negative thoughts, my therapist can log into her account and see my work. When we meet in person she helps me clarify things even more.

Here’s a tutorial on how the Stress Log can help you identify Automatic Negative ThoughtsStress Log Tutorial 

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Separating Negative Emotions from Negative Thoughts

This is not the first time I feel cheated or abandoned. Melanie called and said she was coming late tonight, that I should just have dinner by myself. She said she has to work late.

I am trying to process stressful situations like this better, but I still feel the hit before I can even realize what’s happening. Before she is done telling me all this I am already feeling depressed. I feel a knot in my stomach and even my arms feel heavy. Only because I am doing CBT therapy now I ask myself why I am feeling this way. Before CBT, I would have simply assumed I was feeling cheated and abandoned as a direct consequence of the situation. She was not coming home for dinner because she no longer cares about me and she is probably sleeping with her boss or something.

Now I know that saying things like “I feel cheated” or “I feel abandoned” makes no sense. Of course those are not feelings. One feels the whole menu of possible emotions before learning to speak, so whatever takes too many words to describe is probably a thought, not an emotion. I am not saying she is not cheating on me. I am not saying she is not abandoning me, or planning to. All I am saying is that these are thoughts or ideas, not feelings. The mere idea that she might be cheating on me or that she is abandoning me makes me feel very painful stuff. Not nice feelings. Hard to put into words, but sadness and anger are surely part of it.

Distinguishing the negative thoughts from the negative emotions that follow has made a big difference. First of all, now that I clearly see that the thought “She is cheating on me” is the main reason why I feel so terrible, I know I have to challenge this thought. Is she really cheating? What evidence is there to support this belief? Is there evidence against the suspicion that she is cheating?

Now I can also ask myself “So What?” I’ve identified that the mere idea that she might be cheating on me makes me feel deeply depressed. But why? If she is cheating on me, what does it mean about me? What does it mean about my relationship with her? What does it mean about my future? And the more I dig into my mind the more I find out all the other automatic negative thoughts and assumptions that make a phone call feel like the end of the world.

I think she is cheating on me and that means I am a loser, not a real man (and other insults of a sexual nature I don’t dare write here). It also means she thinks I am worthless and she is staying with me temporarily because she has pity on me. I can already picture the break up, the divorce and how impossible it will be for me to find anybody else to ever love me and respect me.

Too much? Maybe. Let me just clarify that I don’t really think all those things. I mean, if I really think about it now I don’t believe that I am completely worthless or that my marriage is finished. I am just trying to describe the rather extreme negative thinking that happened to me when she called me. No wonder they are called automatic negative thoughts. I really felt I had little control over all that nasty stuff going through my mind. I wasn’t even aware I had it in me. Only after talking to my therapist and practicing Stress Log Exercises I realized that I had all those thoughts and assumptions in my mind at the moment.

Here’s a picture of this Stress Log:

Negative Thoughts and Negative Emotions

Tom has learned to differentiate between negative emotions and negative thoughts.

 

Thought Challenge – No Respect

I have realized that thinking that Melanie has no respect for me makes me feel down, tense and it surely doesn’t help me perform sexually.
I agreed with my therapist that it was important for me to question this negative thinking by doing a thought challenge exercise.
I wrote down the evidence that supported the negative thought: We always end up going where she wants to go, she doesn’t even try to hear what I’d like to do and she makes most of the decisions in our relationship.
Then I described the reasons why this automatic negative thought may not be accurate: She doesn’t say anything offensive to me, I don’t really try to say what I’d like to do, liking to be in charge doesn’t necessarily mean she has no respect for me, and she does treat me nicely otherwise.
Finally, I came up with a more balanced statement to replace my original negative thought: Melanie respects me as a person, not as the “head” of the household.
Here’s a picture of my thought challenge exercise:

Thought Challenge Exercise

 

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Stress Log – She Has No Respect for Me

We are simply trying to decide where to go out for dinner. We don’t have a fight about it or anything like that, but the way she talks to me makes me feel down. I can’t understand this woman. All I want is to make her happy, so I let her choose. I ask her where she wants to eat, but she wants me to pick the restaurant. I really don’t feel confident about making any decision lately. I start picturing being in the restaurant, eating lousy food, dealing with an angry waiter. I imagine Melanie with a long face thinking that if she was married to somebody else she would be eating in a better restaurant.

So I don’t want to choose. I don’t want to be blamed for a disappointing evening. But she insists. I ask her if she would be into sushi. Her mouth twists in a weird way that makes her look like she is disgusted by something. Well, if you don’t feel like sushi, why don’t you pick a place? So she does. She decides she wants Italian food, and so we go. But she is still not happy about it. The only goal in my mind is to please her, but it seems it is a hopeless pursuit. I’m just not man enough for her. I can imagine what she is thinking. That she is the one that wears the pants in the relationship, that I am a burden. I feel a knot in my stomach. I am worthless and she knows it.

I know thinking all these negative thoughts is not helpful. I understand my state of my mind makes me see things negatively. But it’s hard to stop. My therapist tells me that a first step is to write things down, so I write this Stress Log (see the picture). I write down separately the stressful situation, the negative emotions I am feeling, and my negative thoughts.

I must admit I didn’t even know I had some of these thoughts in my mind until I wrote this Stress Log down. And I do see how it is obvious that thinking like this is very depressing and not necessary.

Stress Log Performance Anxiety

Stress Log Performance Anxiety

Thinking that she has no respect for me and that I am not worthy of respect has a lot to do with my feeling so bad. But am I? I will certainly do a Thought Challenge about this.

 

My First Thought Challenge

With the help of my therapist, I’ve clearly understood the link between my thoughts about not being a real man and my feelings of depression and anxiety.

At first it seemed very obvious to me that I was not a real man. Of course it depends on what I mean by that. But I never thought that was a statement worth questioning. It’s like a rule of life, right? If you can’t have an erection you are not a man. Period. Not the kind of stuff you “question.” But I’ve been feeling so miserable, and thinking this way is not helping.

In this Thought Challenge  exercise I write all the reasons why I might not be a real man (the supporting evidence), and then I write all the reasons why that might not be right (evidence against the statement “I am not a real man”). After considering all the facts I come up with a more balance statement. It does make a lot of sense that being a real man is not a black or white thing. Like one minute you are the real thing and then next minute you are nothing. I guess you could at least say that some people are more real man, or more manly, than others.

Here’s my first Thought Challenge:

Performance Anxiety Thought Challenge Picture

Performance Anxiety Thought Challenge Picture

Learn how to challenge your won thoughts watching this tutorial:
Thought Challenge Tutorial

Not a Real Man

I am sitting on the tip of my bed looking at my wife slowly take off her clothes. She is clearly putting on her sexiest show in an effort to arouse me. When she took off my pants she tried to be seductive about it, too. All I could think was “I hope she doesn’t touch my flaccidity,” “If she realizes I don’t have an erection yet it’ll kill the moment.”
She keeps undressing and now she looks at me. I am thinking I should be loving it, but I can’t stop thinking about not getting an erection. Not yet. I am glad I still have my shirt on. I’ve grown so fat lately. I really don’t get what she sees in me.
In an effort to describe this stressful situation I wrote a Stress Log for my cognitive therapist:
Stress Log CBT exercise

My Worries about Sexual Performance are Ruining My Life

My name is Tom. I’ll be blogging about how my poor sexual performance is affecting my mood, my relationship with my wife and the way I see myself.

I don’t feel like a real man! But my therapist says that being or not a real man is a thought, an idea, not a feeling. So I guess it is more accurate to say I feel terrible because I think, sometimes, that I am not a real man.

Follow my blog and see how I try to deal with this.

You can challenge your own negative thoughts at:

www.mindquire.com