Our brains are meaning-making machines. We are constantly trying to make sense of the events in our lives.
Much of this processing happens outside our conscious awareness. These thoughts that constantly stream in the background are called Automatic Thoughts.
Although sometimes we are unaware of these automatic thoughts, they can still have a powerful impact on how we feel, and what we do.
Let’s see how Jane and Lily’s automatic thoughts influenced their reactions to the same situation.
Situation: Partner was 20 minutes late in coming home.
Thoughts: What if he got into a car accident? He’s probably badly hurt, or worse. That’s why I can’t reach him on the phone!
Feelings: Very anxious, panicky
Body symptoms: Racing heart, tightening chest, breathing faster
Jane felt anxious and panicky. She repeatedly called her partner’s cell phone, listened for ambulance sirens, and looked out the window. She also called her mother for reassurance.
Thoughts: He’s probably caught up in traffic. He usually calls to let me know when he’s running late, but he probably forgot to charge his phone last night.
Feelings: A little concerned, and slightly annoyed
Body symptoms: Stomach slightly tense
Lily felt a little concerned and slightly annoyed. She decided to carry on with what she was doing while listening for the door.
Actual outcome: Both of their partners arrived home safely shortly after and explained that traffic was bad and the phone’s battery was depleted.
Jane and Lily reacted to the same situation very differently because of the different meanings they had given to the situation. Both of their reactions made complete sense given what they were telling themselves. Jane’s scary interpretation increased her anxiety and led her to behave anxiously, while Lily’s calmer and more probable interpretation did not increase her anxiety much and she was less distracted.
These examples demonstrate that our thoughts do not have to be true to impact how we feel. Our thoughts can have a strong effect even when they are unrealistic and extreme. Thoughts can feel true, even if they are actually not a true reflection of reality.
Just because a thought feels true doesn’t make it true. Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are not facts.