September 30, 2021

Automatic Thoughts

By Treshana Lewis

Mental Health & Wellbeing

Automatic thoughts are involuntary, unconscious thoughts that arise with little to no human direction. At times, they can feel instinctive – just as instinctive as eating when you are hungry, grabbing a drink when you are thirsty, and sleeping when your body is tired. In this blog, we will spend some time learning about automatic thoughts, their origin, and their impact on our feelings, behaviors, and thoughts.

Science behind our thoughts

“The brain is primarily composed of neurons, which are cells that generate electrical impulses for communication. It is estimated that the human brain has close to 100 billion neurons. Neurons release brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, which generate these electrical signals in neighboring neurons. The electrical signals propagate like a wave to thousands of neurons, which leads to thought formation.” – Lina Begdache

The development of thoughts and thought patterns are comparable to a fire. Our environmental factors (such as child rearing (nurture), relationships, social media, spirituality and religion, socioeconomic status, etc.) are the foundations of igniting the flame. A continuous pattern of behaviors, actions, words, events, or experiences is like adding igniting fluid to a lit fire, increasing it’s intensity. This is why some people find themselves feeling like their thoughts are a wildfire that cannot be extinguished. Our thoughts can be either negative or positive; which can lead us to being confident or insecure, compassionate or judgemental, securely attached or anxiously attached. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed and bogged down by negative thoughts, know that there is hope for you. The beautiful thing about the brain is that despite it’s systematic structured nature, it also has what is known as plasticity. This just means that the brain has, “the quality of being easily shaped or molded,” (Google definition). This means that negative thoughts and maladaptive behavior patterns have the ability to be transformed. 

Importance of Identifying and Transforming Automatic Thoughts

I bet you are wondering why it is important to identify and transform automatic thoughts. It’s important because our thoughts have the power to control how we feel, behave, interact with others, process information and experiences, and see the world around us. If our automatic thoughts are distorted, then so will everything else that is connected to our thoughts. There are other things that are connected to our automatic thoughts as well; smells, visuals, memories, sounds, event(s), etc. These can serve as triggers. Triggers are stimuli that cause something to happen. An example of this could be a fire alarm by pulling the trigger the alarm will begin to sound.

Examples of the Development of an Automatic Thought

Trigger: You made a mistake on an assignment or task

Automatic Thought: “I’m stupid” or “I will get fired or fail the class”


Trigger: You text a friend but did not receive a response right away.

Automatic Thought: “They must not like me. They’re ignoring me, I must have done something wrong.”

Creating a New Thought

We cannot change our triggers, but we can transform our trigger responses. Creating a new thought will require us to embrace compassion and positivity while abandoning negative self-talk, self criticism/scrutiny, and irrational thinking. Creating a new thought will challenge you to think of other alternatives that could be true.

Trigger: You made a mistake on an assignment or task.

Alternatives: Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are how you learn and grow.

Compassion: I’m human, it’s okay to make mistakes.

New Thought: “I messed up, but mistakes happen. I’m going to work through this like I always do.”


Trigger: You text a friend but did not receive a response right away.

Alternatives: They are busy and unable to respond right away. They need time to process the information before responding.

Compassion: I’m loved. This friend has shown that they care and have love for me in the past.

New Thought: “They might be really busy and will probably text back when they get a chance.”

Reframing negative automatic thoughts can be hard but with the right support systems around you it is more than possible. If you are struggling with negative automatic thoughts and would like some assistance in developing a healthier thoughtlife. Please give us a call to schedule an appointment with one of our counselors who would be happy to help you.

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Articles by our Optimum Joy Staff

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