As my many of my fellow chronic illness warriors know, mental health struggles such as depression and anxiety are real…ly common . Not that they are necessarily constant, though the can be. I actually do a whole episode of my podcast on mental health and it’s relation to chronic illness, so feel free to check that out for more info. For today however, I want to take a look at one element of our mental health, which is commonly experienced by everyone (seriously everyone) whether or not they have another underlying physical or mental illness. Negative automatic thoughts (or NATs).
NATs are those subconscious thoughts that you don’t realize you’re having until you do (and even then you may not realize that’s what they are). It’s the thoughts of “I suck,” “how could I be so stupid,” “what an idiot I am,” “why am I dumb enough to say that,” etc, etc, etc. Are they accurate thoughts? Usually not. But we all have them from time to time (or more often, but we’ll get to that in a minute). These thoughts, according to cognitive behavioural therapy, can lead to anxiety and depression. Why? Because our thoughts cause our feelings. If we keep telling ourselves that we are “stupid” or “not good enough” or whatever terrible thing we say to ourselves, we will (a) start to believe it, and (b) feel upset about it. Makes sense right?
Image from: https://iveronicawalsh.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/the-vicious-circle-of-negative-auto-pilot-thinking/
If you’ve gone to a CBT therapist, you may have experience with thought records. Basically, this is a sheet (or note on your phone) where you record your thought and your feeling every time you have one of these negative automatic thoughts. The point is twofold. First, it’s to see how often you are having these thoughts and what emotions are connected to them. Second, it allows you the opportunity to begin changing these thoughts. If you can catch yourself saying “I’m stupid” then you can change it to, “you know that may have not been the smartest choice to make but I’ve learned from it so I won’t do it again.” Or more simply, “I’m not stupid, I’m smart, I just did a silly thing.” To be honest, this is a much harder skill to learn than it seems, but it can be done.
Changing these thoughts into positive ones instead of negative is an ultimate act of self-love. To be honest, since I started to practice this a few years ago, I have less NATs than I did before. Yes, they still pop up, but I can catch myself and reframe the thought because I know that the thought isn’t true. I encourage everyone to try to keep track of your thoughts for awhile so you can catch these nasty little NATs and try to take some ownership of your mental health through self-love.