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Kernels of Thought (Automatic Thoughts)

By Beverly Ward

Still Waters Counseling Center

September 18, 2022

From Science: Automatic thoughts are thoughts that ‘pop’ into our minds in response to situations. Think of them like microwave popcorn. When we put a bag of microwave popcorn in the microwave and push the start button, kernels start popping up automatically one after the other, rising and falling in succession. Automatic thoughts are similar. They automatically pop into our minds in response to situations, they are fleeting, they come in succession and many of them happen outside of our awareness. Consider this scenario: You are at the grocery store and see a neighbor, she looks at you, turns away and walks off. In response to this situation, automatic thoughts would ‘pop’ into your mind. You might think, “why is she mad at me….what did I do…why does no one like me…I’m never talking to her again”, or you might think, “I wonder why she did not speak…maybe she is having a hard day…I think I’ll call and check on her…maybe she would like to go for coffee next week.”

We respond to our automatic thoughts with emotions (such as anger, sadness, concern, happiness) behaviors, (perhaps avoidance, reaching out, yelling, care taking), and physiologically (sometimes muscle tension or relaxation, increased heart rate, shortness of breath). When we change our thinking, we can change our moods, emotions, behaviors, physiology, and our lives.

The first step in beginning to change our thinking, is to catch those automatic thoughts as they ‘pop’ into our minds. When we begin to realize what we are thinking, we can then begin the work of reshaping our thoughts. There is a video in the Lagniappe section that teaches some ways to catch your thoughts.

From Scripture: Second Corinthians 10:5 tells us “We tear down arguments and every presumption set up against the knowledge of God; and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” This verse is one source of biblical confirmation that the path to change is in our thinking. Scripture confirms what science suggests, that we can demolish thoughts, take them captive, and make them obedient. We can tear down arguments. When we being to catch our thoughts, we can challenge them with the Truths found in scripture, and thereby begin taking them captive to the knowledge of God.

Action Plan: Catch the kernels! Becoming aware of what we are thinking is the first step in changing the way we think. How do we catch more of our automatic thoughts? We can catch our thoughts by monitoring our mood and emotions. When you first feel your mood shifting toward trouble, ask yourself “what was I just thinking?” Tune in to those fleeting thoughts popping into your mind and notice what they are. Remember that the thoughts may come in the form of words or images. (Some of us think in pictures, others of us in words, some of us in both.)

Sometimes automatic thoughts are hard to catch. We might feel that we are not thinking anything when we feel our emotions rise. A therapist can help illicit your thoughts and teach you how to do it yourself. Watch the video in the Lagniappe section if you would like a quick lesson on helping yourself catch your automatic thoughts.

The Lagniappe:

A video on how to catch your automatic thoughts. (The therapist in this video is speaking for other therapists. Don’t let that hinder you. CBT is a therapy intended to teach people to become their own therapist. Give it a try!)