Automatic Thoughts

We have thousands of thoughts every day. Many of these thoughts are automatic, unintentional, and unthinking. The problems arise when we attach emotions to them. Our thoughts are influenced by our upbringing, our culture, family values and previous experiences. We decide almost automatically whether an event, person, or thought is good or bad, dangerous or safe. Oftentimes our minds attach the meaning without our realizing it as it tries to help us interpret events, sights, smells, sounds and feelings. Our minds start with an event and then attach meaning to it which leads to the emotions we feel.

Here are some truths about automatic thoughts.

The first thing to remember that these thoughts are automatic. They just happen and are often affected by our upbringing and development. Oftentimes we develop unhelpful thinking habits which lead to Cognitive Distortions.

Our thoughts are believable although they might not necessarily be helpful, true or accurate. Automatic thoughts are often based on our emotions rather than the facts and this can drive our opinion based on whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Thoughts can be a memory, words, a physical sensation, an image, a sound or based on intuition. Our thoughts can also be based on a sense of just ‘knowing’ or gut instinct.

Our thoughts are habitual and persistent. This is how cognitive distortions can be formed. Thoughts repeat over and over leading to a believability that can set off a new chain of related thoughts that can make us feel worse. Our thoughts often follow themes for short periods or even for years and decades. This is known as rumination and can lead long term depression.

The final truth about automatic thoughts is that they are ours. They are very specific to ourselves because of our experiences, values, knowledge and culture. We may often have thoughts that don’t fit with our values and beliefs, which can cause us distress because we attach meaning to those thoughts about why we had them.

Automatic thoughts are just that, automatic. They are often fleeting and illogical, but it is when we attach meaning and emotion to the thoughts that we run into trouble. Oftentimes we have to relearn a more balanced way of thinking to deal with the cognitive distortions that we have developed throughout the years.

  1. Automatic Thoughts
  2. Unhelpful Thinking Habits
  3. Finding Alternative Thoughts

How Family and Friends Can Help Those with Mental Illness

One of the many questions I get when speaking is “How can we help those with depression?” I’m so glad to hear people asking this question because it shows that they see, at least partially, the pain that their friend or family member is going through and they want to help. So here are a couple of suggestions I have gotten from friends who also suffer from mental illness.

My first response to this question is to tell the person that you are there for them. Depression and anxiety often make a person feel very alone. But these diseases can also make a person push family and friends away because they don’t believe that anyone can understand how they feel. Showing a depressed person that you are there for them by doing little things like helping around the house, can help that person start their road to recovery.

A friend with depression said this when asked what family and friends can do to help, “Invites back to life. Depression is not living. People should try to push you to resume daily life starting with fun!” She’s right. Depression is not living, depression is only an existence. By inviting a depressive out to daily events like shopping or just taking a walk, you are inviting them back to having a life.

Another way to help someone with a mental illness is to encourage them to seek professional help. Help them find a psychiatrist or therapist that they like. Make sure they are getting to their appointments and taking their meds.

The biggest gift you can give them is being nonjudgmental. They often can’t help the direction their mind is going in. By being nonjudgmental and showing understanding, you can help them stop the rumination which is a big part of depression and anxiety. The best thing you can do is be supportive and ask if there is anything they need.

Encourage them also to get involved with art, music, or anything that allows them to creatively express themselves. Expressive therapy is known to be extremely therapeutic.

It is often the smallest things that can have the biggest impact for a person with depression. Inviting them out to dinner or trying to establish some type of normalcy will help them feel much better about themselves and help pull them from the depression. For us, it’s the small things that count the most.

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Family

Family. Almost everyone has a family, whether they want one or not. Family is usually there for you. They stick by you no matter what and often times they get on your nerves with their constant advice. They always have some sort of input on your life whether you want it or not. Families are there for each other and support each other.

So what happens when you are diagnosed with depression and your family has no clue what to do or even what that means? Oftentimes they try their best to help, but sometimes their ‘help’ consists of platitudes, cliches, or questions that don’t help the situation. This can be frustrating at best and at it’s worst, can actually worsen your depression.

Lately, all I’ve been hearing from my family is you need to stop doing this or start doing that. I want to tell them that all I really need is support not advice. You are not living my life nor are you standing in my shoes, you have no idea what I’m going through. Why is it that my two friends are better support than you are? Instead, I get asked when I’m going to go back to school or when am I going to get a better job. I just want to scream at them “I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got right now, is that not good enough?”

It’s bad enough that I haven’t been able to succeed at following my own life plan, I don’t need you to force yours on to me. Maybe I won’t complete school. Maybe I’ll never get a college degree, is that such a bad thing? Which is silly because I do want to go back to school and get a degree, I just want everyone to stop asking me these questions, because right now I don’t have the answers. Right now, I’m living day to day, just trying to make it through.

So I’m sure you’re asking yourself, as family, what can I do? Sometimes silent support is the best support. And as tempting as it may seem, giving advice isn’t going to help. Oftentimes, it only makes us feel worse. The best question you can ask is “How are you doing?”, followed by “Is there anything I can do to help you?”. These two questions show your support of the person and allows them to respond in a manner most comfortable for them.

These are the two questions I wish my family would ask me without judgement or criticism. I wish they would stop trying to give me advice, platitudes or asking me questions that I don’t know the answers to. I’m trying my best at the moment, why can’t that be enough?

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My Story: After Outpatient Treatment Part 3

Week 3, Day 1
Yesterday I hung out with the BF. We had fun visiting local downtown areas having lunch and then hitting up the mall. I was looking for a new swimsuit top for the summer. Now, I’m a slightly bigger girl, with a pretty large bust so it can be difficult for me to find tops that fit. So, after visiting the first of the 2 stores we were going to look at, I had a minor meltdown. I knew that anything I was going to find was going to have to be altered and that was if I found something in the first place. My BF dragged me over to some couches where we just sat and talked and cried. Well, I cried but he was so kind and understanding. He sees me in such a different light than I see myself and it’s amazing.

In the end, we didn’t find any swimsuit top that would work, so I decided an old bra and tank top would work for now, but the bonding experience we had was definitely worth the struggle we went through just in looking. I can’t believe I’ve found this amazing guy who is willing to deal with my ups and my downs and it’s amazing that he wants to be with me. I can’t wait to see where things go from here.

PS: Don’t teach BF any more coping skills!!! He knows way too much about rumination, and is consistently reminding me of when I do it already!! 🙂

5/12
I’m heading to vacation this week. I’m so excited to have a couple of days to relax and help my grandparents. I still haven’t found a swimsuit but that’s ok. I’ll just wear a bra and tank top. It’s not very warm out anyway so maybe the extra layers will help. I’m excited to get away from life for even just three days and spend some time out on the water. It always helps me relax and I always feel better afterward.

5/14
I only feel important, like I’m a priority when I’m needed/wanted for help with something. At least within my family, I feel like they only want me around when they need me to do something for them. Otherwise, I just feel like I’m in the way or I get the feeling that they want me to go away. I know that they don’t always like that I’m so open about my depression and my life on this blog but I just never understood hiding things. And I’m hoping that being more open about my struggle will help others with depression and promote understanding to those without it.

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Validation & Why It Can Become A Problem

Validation is important because it is telling yourself or others that what you think, experience, believe and feel is real, important, understandable and logical. We learn in childhood how to validate others and rely on their validation of ourselves. Their thoughts and opinions often affect how we think and feel about a certain situation or even another person. During childhood, however, we also learn to doubt ourselves and our emotions, so that we trust other people more than ourselves. This can be a problem because validation for both yourself and for others, improves the quality of our lives.

Validating others can help your relationships. Recognizing that their experiences, beliefs and feelings are important to them can strengthen your relationship. By validating their feelings, you are telling them that what they feel is real and understandable. Validation, however, does not mean that you approve of or agree with the behavior. Validation is non-judgmental, which can be difficult. It is our natural inclination to judge people based on their looks and behaviors so it can take some work, being non-judgmental when you validate.

Validating yourself takes time and patience. Today’s society teaches us not to rely on ourselves and our own emotions. Self-validation is about recognizing our emotions and realizing their importance. Self-validation often quiets defensive or fearful emotions. It also allows us to let go of pain and exhaustion from constant self-justification and self-doubt. Self-validation teaches us to be confident within ourselves and with our feelings and emotions, whether they are good or bad, logical or illogical.

Some ways to validate yourself and others is to observe. Focus on the inherent worth of the person or yourself. State the facts of the situation non-judgmentally. State the unstated, which includes identifying primary emotions for yourself. And finally, find out what is true or valid about the experience. When validating someone else, it is important to empathize and be non-judgmental. When validating yourself, if you realize that the thoughts you are having are ‘irrational’, it is still important to validate that they exist and are powerful in the moment.

Validation will improve the quality of your life and the lives of others. We are constantly seeking validation from others, but we also need to seek validation from ourselves. Are we comfortable with the situation? Do we approve of our actions? If not, why? Be non-judgmental and learn to be comfortable in your own skin. That’s what self-validation is all about.

Self-Esteem

It’s strange for me to hear someone say something complimentary about me. I can deal with the smaller compliments like, “you have great eyes” or “you have a pretty smile” but the compliment “you are gorgeous”, just throws me for a loop and it’s something I have to work on. When I think of myself in good terms, I think about what I can do rather than how I look. But this also has to do with my self-esteem.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have low self-esteem. Years of negative life experiences and failed expectations have led me to this point. I ‘know’ that I’m a good person but I ‘know’ is extremely different from I ‘believe’.

Low self-esteem occurs when we think negatively about ourselves and situations. This comes about because we feel the need to place value on everything and everyone. However, we set the value of our self-worth extremely low. Negative self thoughts equal negative or low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is also circular; actual or perceived criticism or negative judgments lead to repeated self-critical thoughts or cognitive distortions which leads to low self-esteem. This circle will continue until there is a change.

To exit the cycle of low self-esteem, you have to begin thinking and doing things differently. Changes have to be made. For thinking differently, examples include ‘fact versus opinion’ or ‘being more realistic’. For doing things differently, examples include ‘acknowledging your strengths, setting limits when helping others and acting who you want to be’. “Visualize yourself competently and confidently doing and enjoying the things you would like to enjoy doing and successfully doing what you need to do”.

Using positive statements or self affirmations can also help you develop a new attitude toward yourself. You must use the affirmation immediately after having the negative thought, even if you don’t believe the affirmation. After continued use of this new habit, the negative thought will be replaced by the affirmation. Positive affirmations are most often “I am…” statements.

In addition, you should use a coping thought/positive statement for each difficult or distressing situation. Make sure to write them out ahead of time so that you have them handy for when the situations occur. Examples of these include: ‘My mind is not always my friend’ and ‘Thoughts are just thoughts – they’re not necessarily true or factual’. Please view the worksheet attached at the end of this post for more examples.

Having a higher self-esteem will give you a higher self worth so you don’t have to depend on others for these emotions or feelings. A higher self-esteem will allow to feel motivation, encouragement and empowerment to reach your goals and dreams.

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  1. Positive Affirmations
  2. Self-Esteem
  3. Low Self-Esteem
  4. Positive Statements Worksheet