What are Automatic Thoughts?
Our thoughts can be our best friends or our enemies. They help us make sense of the world as we have the ability to attribute thoughts to certain events. Automatic thoughts are the thoughts that come to us instantly during a given experience. Although this can be helpful, sometimes our thought patterns have negative effects. Ideally, we want to step away from old ways of thinking but feel stuck. Mindfulness can help by providing us with freedom and expansion from our thought patterns, allowing us to have different experiences.
Before we look at how mindfulness can help change automatic thoughts, let’s look at what function they serve. Automatic thoughts are useful in that they reduce stress and preserve energy. Can you imagine having to pay attention to every single detail of driving a car each time you did so? We all experience moments where we are not as mindful and our bodies take over and complete the task without us having to pay much attention to it. This happens in many situations that don’t require new learning or a repetitive activity. What activities do you feel are, “taken over” by automatic thoughts?
Spacing Out is Universal
When can automatic thoughts become an issue for us? Automatic thoughts can make our thinking narrow and rigid. It can also cause us to become stuck in a rut with the same old habits. We come home and automatically set our keys down. The next morning we leave for work and have forgotten where we placed our keys because of this automatic action of placing our keys down when we go home.
Feeling stressed or intense emotions can also trigger an automatic response. This limits the way that we react to a situation which directly impacts our ability to illicit the positive change we want to see. Due to automatic thoughts, we are not even aware that we are having an emotional response to our thoughts.
How Mindfulness Helps with Automatic Thoughts?
Mindfulness requires that we focus our attention. The attention that we place helps to shape our awareness and actions. Neuroscience research shows that with attention we can reshape the function and structure of the brain. Mindfulness improves self-regulation or self control which is the conscious ability to direct our attention to our thinking, feeling, and behaviors. Poor self regulation can cause frustration, stress and low self esteem.
Even individuals with ADHD can train to strengthen their brain and become more motivated to work on their symptoms. People with ADHD have many symptoms that act automatically as well. Frequent interruptions, impulsivity, losing track of time or repeatedly over-reacting. These behaviors can translate into difficulties in the home, work or at school.
For example, when we feel impatient when standing at the grocery line, we don’t have to act on this impatience. We don’t have to think or feel impatient. We can choose instead, to focus on the aroma of the oranges that we are purchasing or the steady beeping sound of the cash register. Directly using the present moment to help us cope instead of storming out of the grocery store, responding angrily to the person in front of us or mentally beating ourselves up for running to the store at the last minute. This decision to focus attention elsewhere in the present moment is mindfulness.
Thoughts are simply electro-chemical impulses in the brain.
Whether you are an individual with ADHD, suffering from anxiety or depression or just want to change your thought patterns you can benefit from mindfulness. You can learn to manage your symptoms and self regulation difficulties and enhance your well being and build resilience. A professional can help you explore your automatic thoughts and create more insight into your behaviors. There are many opportunities in life to be able to implement mindfulness and start feeling the benefits right away.