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Our thoughts, and ways of thinking, wield a great deal of power to change our emotions, moods, and, ultimately, our behaviors. By heightening our awareness or mindfulness of our physical, mental and emotional states, and thoughts, as well as our reactions to our thoughts and states, we can empower ourselves to be better equipped to successfully navigate and manage situations and events. And, eventually we can succeed at changing our health behaviors.
Identifying our thoughts and restructuring them is the basis of many effective techniques frequently being utilized by health behavior change experts. Researchers found that negative and/or distorted beliefs and thoughts affect emotions and ultimately, our behavior. There is a reciprocal relationship between them. Through my thesis research, “Examining the Addition of Cognitive Behavioral Strategies to a Standard Weight Loss Program,” I found that weight loss participants who used strategies, such as “automatic thought” monitoring, restructuring, tracking and evaluation, lost significantly more weight over the course of the study, and sustained their weight loss longer than those who participated in a standard weight loss program.
When we learn to process our thoughts in realistic, positive, and/or flexible ways, we experience optimal emotional, behavioral, and physical reactions to situations and events. These types of reactions, in turn, support positive health behavior change. By changing our thoughts, we can change our emotions and moods which, in turn, can change our behavior.
“Automatic thoughts” are thoughts that arise spontaneously. Sometimes our automatic thoughts “come out of the blue” and can be uncontrollable. Therefore, these thoughts are termed automatic as they are not a result of deliberation or reasoning and are more reactionary. Often, we may not even be consciously aware of our automatic thoughts. Most of the time the thoughts are very brief and we may be more aware of the emotions that arise from them than the thoughts themselves. Automatic thoughts lead to reactions that affect our emotions and moods. It is not situations or events that determine how we feel, but how we interpret or construe them.
The automatic thought process
A situation occurs that leads to an automatic thought, which results in an action (or non-action).
In the automatic thought process, a situation occurs. For example, you may be attempting to lose weight, and you attend a holiday party. The host offers you a large high calorie dessert. In that moment, an automatic thought occurs. Your automatic thought may be, “this looks incredible, I have to eat this; I haven’t had this in a long time”. If this is your automatic thought, it is likely the outcome (action) will be that you dig into the dessert. Another scenario to the same situation may be that your automatic thought is, “I am sticking to my weight loss plan. I will regret eating this; I will feel better tomorrow if I politely decline the dessert”. In this case, the outcome (action) will most likely be you don’t indulge in the dessert, and stick with your desired behavior change goal.
Therefore, becoming more mindful of our thoughts can assist us in interpretation of our thoughts, and in turn allows us to shift our way of thinking to not let distressing or negative thoughts jeopardize our behavior change actions and goals. Automatic thoughts drive our “knee-jerk reactions” to situations. The first step in controlling our automatic thoughts is to first identify what they are by increasing our awareness of them. It is also helpful to “distance” our thoughts and allow adequate time to evaluate them mindfully, as opposed to impulsively.
Keeping thought records
The best way to become more aware of our automatic thoughts is to write them down. “Thought records” help us track, evaluate, and redirect our thoughts when necessary. We cannot change what we are not aware of. For the purposes of behavior change, thought records may be used to understand our automatic thoughts by enlightening us with a heightened awareness of our reactions to situations or events and to self-correct if necessary. Thought records may reveal that we may need to take another view of our automatic responses. They may also help us identify negative thought patterns. Pattern identification is particularly effective in maintaining positive behavior change
Restructure to change
A technique for changing our automatic thoughts is to restructure or reconstruct our reactions to situations. Thought restructuring is like the development of a rational rebuttal to automatic thoughts. By looking at a situation in a different way, we may rebuild or redirect our thoughts to support positive health behavior (Hope, Burns, Hayes, Herbert & Warner, 2010). The holiday party dessert example above is an example of thought restructuring. This may appear to be a difficult exercise at first. However, in time, and with objective practice, you will improve how you evaluate your automatic thoughts and how you constructively work through challenging situations and events by reframing or restructuring your automatic thought process.
Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Hobbis, I. (2005). Are Techniques Used in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Applicable to Behaviour Change Interventions Based on the Theory of Planned Behaviour? Journal of Health Psychology, 10 (1), 7-18 DOI: 10.1177/1359105305048549
Hope, D., Burns, J., Hayes, S., Herbert, J., & Warner, M. (2007). Automatic Thoughts and Cognitive Restructuring in Cognitive Behavioral Group Therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder Cognitive Therapy and Research, 34 (1), 1-12 DOI: 10.1007/s10608-007-9147-9
Ludovici-Connolly, A. M. (2010). Winning health promotion strategies. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Ludovici, A. M. (2014). Change Your Mind, Change Your Health: 7 Ways to Harness Your Brain to Achieve True Well-Being. Pompton Plins, New Jersey, New Page Books.
Ludovici recently authored Change Your Mind, Change Your Health: 7 Ways to Harness the Power of Your Brain to Achieve True Well-Being.
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