Another name for automatic thoughts is Inner-talk.
Inner-talk is very normal. It is our internal dialogue about the world and our place in it. We do it constantly. We continuously make interpretations of what is happening and how we are doing. We judge events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful and predict whether they will bring danger or not.
One of the most essential characteristics of automatic thoughts is that they are subtle. Because they happen continually, we learn to ‘tune out’. We rarely notice them, and we are not fully aware of them. We hear them only as a background sound in our head without paying a lot of attention to them.
Another characteristic is that they are spontaneous and very rapid. Automatic thoughts do not follow reflection or reasoning but arise suddenly in response to the stimuli. They are often composed of just a few essential words or a brief visual image, acting as a label for a collection of memories from the past experiences.
Some of the automatic thoughts are true, which give us accurate pictures of the world and save us from danger. Others are false, not based in reality, which worn us of non-existent dangers and disasters. Because of this, they are called negative automatic thoughts.
Negative automatic thoughts have a powerful influence on our behaviour and decision making.
- They are unconscious – They happen without our conscious awareness
- They are distorted and unrealistic – They are not based on reality. If analysed rationally, they do not fit the facts. But in practice, they appear automatically, they pop into your mind and are accepted without being questioned or challenged.
- They are negative and unhelpful – They are orientated towards the future and always pessimistic. They are always expecting the worst, and are the major source of anxiety.
- They are powerful. Because they are automatic, they run unnoticed. They also tend to act as cues for each other – one anxious thought can trigger a chain of similar thoughts, reinforcing the anxiety and often overriding your rational mind.
- They are persistent. Negative automatic thoughts are usually deeply imprinted in our unconscious mind. The only way to change their habitual repeating is to replace them with the new positive messages, and we can do that by changing the way we talk to ourselves. This is the process of de-conditioning.