Think about the last time you had a critical thought about yourself or someone else. Was it this past week? This past hour? What were the words that popped into your mind? How did you react to them?
Automatic thoughts are thoughts that arise in your mind unconsciously, triggered by the circumstances around you or your daily life events. They are usually accompanied by emotion, and sometimes by an action in response. You might notice these thoughts most strongly when they are negative.
For example, let’s imagine you’re walking around in the grocery store and see a beautiful woman walking in front of you. If you’re a woman, you might think to yourself, “I could never be that pretty. I’m just an ugly old hag.” If you’re a man, you might think, “I could never date or marry someone like that. She would never give me the time of day because I’m so unattractive.” Emotions associated with that thought might be anger, sadness, or hopelessness. These thoughts could lead you to stop and get a coffee or a muffin to cheer yourself up, get in a fight with your spouse when you get home, or even (if you’re feeling particularly combative that day) “accidentally” tripping the woman as she walks by you.
What are we to do when we have these negative thoughts? Cognitive-behavioral therapists teach a concept called “thought stopping,” which is meant to help control the automatic thoughts as they pop into your mind. They recommend imagining a stop sign in your mind, thinking or saying aloud the word “stop.” While the effectiveness of this technique is questionable, the philosophy behind this action is to remind you that you don’t have to think those thoughts and you can redirect your mind elsewhere, reducing the power of the thought at hand.
When I was recently reading some training materials about thought stopping, they suggested that you consider creating a “replacement thought,” or an alternative image in your mind that can replace the negative thought with a positive, happy memory. As I read this, I was reminded of major characters in the Harry Potter series: dementors.
If you’re familiar with Harry Potter, you’ll know what dementors are. If not, dementors are frightening creatures that feed on happiness and therefore lead nearby people to feel despair, fear, and depression. In effect, they trigger negative memories and emotions. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s first experience with a dementor leaves him in a dead faint out of fear.
Have your negative thoughts ever left you in such a state that you feel as though you’re paralyzed, in despair, or terrified?
Part of the effect of the dementors is their ability to steal joy from people around them. In order to “fight back” against the dementors, Harry has to learn a spell (the Patronus charm) that requires him to recall a happy memory in his mind. In the scene where he is learning to use the spell, he tests out several different memories before finally settling on one where he feels truly joyful.
Thought stopping is a lot like casting a Patronus charm. Instead of becoming consumed by the negative beliefs that steal joy in your life, you can resist by calling to mind an experience where you were confident, capable, and secure.
What are some memories you have where you felt confident, capable, and secure?
My challenge to you is to take some time and think of the most common automatic thoughts you experience. What are the dementors in your life? What words do they say to you? Write a list of these words.
Then take a moment to think through memories or images of times when those words were proven wrong. In contrast to comparing yourself with the beautiful woman and coming up short, you might remember your wedding day where you felt particularly attractive or beautiful to your spouse. Sit with this memory for a little while, recalling it in vivid detail. You can write it down as if it were a story, or close your eyes and imagine yourself there.
Notice, too, that Harry had to try several different memories before finally finding one that fit. You may need to seek out several different images or memories that can affirm the positive in your life. While some images might work well in a certain circumstance, at other times they won’t be as effective.
Thought stopping is not intended to be permanent fix. The Patronus spell didn’t kill or destroy the dementors – it simply drove them back for a little while, but they would eventually return. Similarly, you might notice your mind trying to think up ways to invalidate your positive memories, or communicate that those things aren’t true now. When your negative thoughts come back, it is likely time for you to do some deeper work of re-evaluating the automatic thought, which involves processing how it came about and why it has such an effect on you due to your own particular story.
What are the dementors in your life that are plaguing you? What type of positive memories would you need to search for in your memory to fight back?
Negative thoughts may be a daily reality in your life. If you are feeling overwhelmed by despair and hopelessness, and most of your internal dialogue is these negative thoughts and assumptions, I understand how difficult that can be and I’d love to help. Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor therapy office where I help support you through your goals to live a more wholehearted and joyful life. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me and hear about how I can help.