In my last post we talked about the difference between fear and anxiety, why anxiety in the right proportion is a good thing, and the difference between a feeling and an emotion. I also gave you some useful tools to help lower anxiety. In this post I’d like to talk in a bit more detail about how the way we think can really drive the intensity of what we feel and the things we do.
Automatic Negative Thoughts
The Cognitive-Behavioral Model is based on the idea that it isn’t a situation in and of itself that determines how someone will feel, instead their reaction is based a person’s perception of that situation. So the model goes like this:
Situation/event -> Automatic Thoughts -> Reaction (emotion, behavior, psychological)
Now, I have no idea what you’re thinking about this model right now but let’s pretend like several different people are reading this post at this very moment. Here are some possible reactions they might be having to my post right now.
- Reader 1 thinks, “Oh wow! This makes a lot of sense. I think I may have found a resource to help me get my anxiety under control!” Reader 1 feels excited and continues reading.
- Reader 2 on the other hand thinks “This is way too simplistic. It over simplifies the complexity of the human condition. I don’t think this is going to work.” Reader 2 feels disappointed and closes the browser.
- Reader 3 thinks “I was expecting something better. What a waste of my time!” Reader 3 is disgusted and never returns to my site.
- Reader 4 thinks, “Oh man I really need to learn this stuff. What if I’m not smart enough to figure it all out. What if I’m not able to get it all down?” Reader 4 feels anxious and reads these blog entries multiple times, taking notes and memorizing.
- Reader 5 thinks differently: “This is really hard. I’m just dumb and never get anything right. I’ll never get better. Things never change.” Reader 5 gets sad and goes and eats some comfort food.
I’m sure you can see from the examples that none of them are outlandish in terms of possibility. It isn’t hard to imagine that these different readers could have different reactions to the same information. The way people feel and they way they behave is based on what they think about the situation they are in. The situation itself does not determine either emotion or behavior. There exists an evaluative process between the event or situation and the emotion and behavior. Those evaluations, or thoughts are what we’re interested in.
For example, as you read this page you’ll notice that there are likely a couple of levels of thinking going on. On the first level, the one you are most aware of, you are trying to understand the information I’m presenting and integrate it. You’re exercising reading comprehension. On the second level, one which most people may only be partially aware of, you may be experiencing some quick evaluative thoughts. Thoughts such as the ones I listed above. Those thoughts are what we call automatic thoughts. They are not the result of studied and deliberate decision making. More likely they just spring to mind and flash briefly into awareness. This is another survival mechanism we human beings rely on, but unfortunately survival is sometimes about “worst case scenarios” and not about what is actually true. We are very likely to react both emotionally and behaviorally to these automatic, and many times unexamined thoughts. We accept them uncritically and believe them without much examination. One of the skills I teach in therapy is how to identify these automatic thoughts. It’s usually best to try and identify them when we perceive a shift in our mood. Most people notice how they feel before they’re aware of what they’re thinking. When we perceive a shift in our mood, utilizing skills to capture the thoughts driving those emotions is a valuable skill. But where do those thoughts come from?
Starting from our earliest days we begin to develop ideas about ourselves, other people, and the world. Beliefs are our most fundamental and enduring ideas. Many times they are unexamined and usually regarded as absolute truths. They can be very difficult for us to put into words. Let’s take our anxious reader, Reader 4 as an example. Reader 4 is worried that despite her perceived need to understand this post, it’ll be very difficult for her to grasp. Reader 4 frequently has this same reaction when she attempts to master other subjects as well. Financial skills, technical skills, etc. New learning makes her feel anxious. She may have a core belief that “I’m not smart enough.” When this belief is activated, Lisa (I’m sick of calling her Reader 4 so I’m going to call her Lisa from now on) interprets her reality through the lens of this belief. To an outside observer, this may seem invalid because they see Lisa as diligent, studious, and smart. In fact it probably is invalid. Lisa (like most people) focuses selectively on information that would seem to confirm her core belief. She only takes in the thoughts that “fit” her belief. For example, Lisa may not have entertained the possibility that many competent and smart people have difficulty understanding this information the first time they read it. She may not have thought about the possibility that I may be bad at conveying the information. She may have been distracted by activities in her environment, a recent fight with a spouse, or even hunger all of which impair most anyone’s ability to understand new information. Lisa preemptively believes that she is bad at understanding and her automatic thoughts flow from that belief resulting in anxiety.
What about information that directly contradicts this belief? For example after Lisa reads this post she may understand it perfectly. Similarly she may have mastered her financial skills and may be adept at technical skills as well. Wouldn’t this prove that Lisa’s belief is wrong. In fact it does show that Lisa’s belief isn’t accurate, but it doesn’t dissuade Lisa from continuing to believe her core belief. Why? The nature of core beliefs is that they are enduring and they only accept as evidence those inputs which confirm the core belief. In other words they don’t “fit”. In effect the information that would contradict Lisa’s core belief “bounces off” of her core belief and it just isn’t accepted. Lisa may say or think things like “I was able to learn that last thing because it was easy.” or if Lisa is praised for her success she may think “You’re wrong, I scraped by and almost failed.” In essence, Lisa”distorts” these otherwise positive inputs into negative inputs and they are accepted by and continue to confirm her core belief. That’s right, even evidence to the contrary of a core belief is processed as something that supports it!
That’s enough information dump for this week! I’ll return next week with a discussion on those distortions and how they work. In the mean time, you may want to try your hand at capturing your automatic negative thoughts. Although therapy is the best route quickly overcoming your anxieties, it’s sometimes helpful to notice how your thinking works and reflect on what your core beliefs might be. I provide this handout to my clients that helps them track where they were and what their mood was at the time in order to capture what they were thinking. It takes some effort, but the exercise can really help you see where your emotions are coming from, and that’s a step forward.
What Everybody Ought To Know About Anxiety: