In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we give particular focus to the nature, force, frequency and content of negative thoughts. Thoughts play a key role in determining how we feel and what we do. If we interpret a situation negatively, it can profoundly influence the way we react. This in itself is fairly obvious. We have all been in situations where we have misinterpreted or misunderstood something, reacted in an unhelpful manner and then found that we had made an error of judgement.
Making mistakes in how we read and interpret situations is part of normal human behaviour. We are not programmed to get everything completely right all of the time. The world is a complex place and people are different.
The problem arises when we think in patterns that systematically lead to negative feelings and behaviours, where our thoughts automatically generate unrealistic or catastrophic outcomes, where we get trapped in a vicious cycle of negative appraisals and where we are unable to maintain a balanced and realistic perspective. These negative thinking patterns can become reflexive and engrained, leading to unwanted negative emotions such as anxiety or depression and influencing our behaviour in self-defeating ways.
So How Do Thoughts Work?
In this article, we will discover how thoughts are structured and organised in layers, how different types of thought contribute to emotional distress and unwanted behaviours and finally how changing thinking can influence the way we feel.
Layers of Cognition
We can think of negative cognitions or thoughts at four levels – Negative Core Beliefs > Dysfunctional Assumptions > Irrational Rules > Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATS). These different levels form a cognitive processing chain or schema for how we see ourselves, other people, the world and the future.
Unhelpful thinking patterns can also lead to compensatory and maladaptive behaviour as we act out or avoid our negative perceptions.
Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATS)
NATS are fleeting automatic thoughts that can be conscious or almost at the edge of our awareness. They form an internal monologue that can negatively influence how we automatically interpret situations and react to feelings.
Some typical examples include:
- I can’t cope.
- They don’t like me.
- I feel bad.
- I am going to get it wrong.
- It’s not fair.
Negative rules are strict thinking principles that tend to be all or nothing, dogmatically applied and rarely tested. They form an automatic protocol for interpreting situations and are usually based on demands or imperatives. Rules are often formed in childhood where they may have made perfect sense, but provide over-rigid and often unrealistic standards in later life.
- I must always work hard.
- People can’t be trusted.
- I should always be strong.
- There is no point trying.
- I will ultimately fail.
- I should not be anxious.
Dysfunctional assumptions are learned suppositions that over time form a reflexive way of interpreting and applying meaning in different situations. They are usually conditional statements that provide a bridge between core beliefs and negative thoughts and act as an automatic formula for interpreting or reacting to situations.
- If I am criticised, then it proves I am no good.
- When things go wrong, I can’t cope.
- If I don’t put in 100% all the time, then it proves I am a failure.
- If people ignore me, it means I am no good.
- If I can’t think of something interesting to say, people will think I am boring.
- If I always work hard, I will be a success.
Core beliefs are fundamental, absolute and generalized beliefs that we hold about ourselves, other people, the world and the future. Inaccurate and negative core beliefs profoundly affect our self-concept and vulnerability to mood disturbance. Core beliefs typically centre around themes of Lovability, adequacy and helplessness.
Common examples include:
- I am not good enough.
- I am unlovable.
- I am incompetent / stupid.
- I am a bad person.
- I am a failure.
- I am worthless.
Although not strictly cognitions, compensatory strategies form the link between our thoughts and the action or behaviours we take. These strategies basically tell us how to behave when our negative cognitions are activated.
- Over prepare / apply perfectionist standards.
- Attend to the problem by worrying about it.
- Seek approval, ask for reassurance or people please.
- Blame, criticise or attack.
- Continuously check or examine things to reduce uncertainty.
- Procrastinate, avoid or withdraw.
The above explanation briefly illustrates how different layers of thinking can be viewed and organised. This provides a simple way of presenting the overall architecture or structure of our thinking processes. Understanding how negative thoughts and behaviours are influenced by our rules, assumptions and core beliefs, is the first step towards changing and adapting our thinking to support our personal goals and values in life.
Although we are evolved to self-doubt, question, look for problems and simplify our experiences, we also have the capacity to think and behave in a way that is consistent with a healthy and emotionally balanced perspective.
When you are experiencing emotional distress, ask yourself:
What do I notice about my thoughts - step back and just observe what's happening? How does thinking this way help me? What's a more realistic interpretation? Are these just thoughts? Am I really defined by my thoughts? Tolerate the uncertainty and discomfort - make the NATs less relevant. Shift my focus on to helpful and rational things.