In this article I will be addressing an important aspect of the cognitive model, automatic thoughts: their significance, identification and how to handle them with EFT. I have found that combining EFT with the cognitive model (Dr. Aaron Beck) really helps.
What Are Automatic Thoughts?
Let me begin with a few examples:
Sandra got upset in a meeting when her manager disagreed with her views. She thought, “He doesn’t like me.” Bharath does not speak much in meetings as he thinks, “They will not appreciate what I have to say.” Anjana got very anxious before her exam, “I will not be able to do it, what if it is too hard?” Radha became anxious in the evening when her husband was late. She thought, “He may have met with an accident.”
In all these examples, along with the emotions you will find that the thoughts play a crucial role.
Judith Beck in her book, Cognitive Therapy (1995), describes automatic thoughts as being closest to the conscious awareness. They are common to all of us. They are very brief and we are more aware of the emotions than the thoughts. These automatic thoughts can be in verbal form, visual or both.
Using the cognitive model, I often help clients to understand how our interpretations of situations make us feel and act in a certain way. Often you will not be aware of the thoughts because they are so quick and automatic but these thoughts are nonetheless there. And I have observed that along with tapping on the feelings, people benefit a lot by tapping on the automatic thoughts.
This approach helps the clients to understand their reactions and answers their questions such as the following: “I don’t know why I became so upset?” “I don’t know why I felt that way?”
Automatic thoughts indicate the core beliefs that we have. Thoughts such as, “He is better than me. He is more deserving”, etc may reflect underlying core beliefs like, “I’m inadequate. I’m unworthy.”
How Automatic Thoughts Link to Emotions and Beliefs
I’m taking Sandra’s example to explain automatic thoughts and the link with emotions and beliefs.
Due to her childhood negative experiences, Sandra felt unworthy and her automatic thoughts mirrored that unworthiness. If someone disagreed with her she thought that they did not like her.
Situation – Someone disagrees with her.
Automatic thought – “He doesn’t like me”.
Emotion – Upset.
Belief – “I’m inadequate”.
How Do You Identify an Automatic Thought?
When you feel triggered about something, go back to what you ‘thought’ just before that ‘feeling’ was triggered. You can ask yourself, “What does this mean to me?” “What was going on through my mind at that time?”
Slowly with practice you will be able to identify your automatic thoughts, change them and in turn change the feelings as well.
One client who has been suffering from generalized anxiety told me that she does not have any thoughts when she is anxious but when I gently probed she said that before speaking to people she thought, “Everyone is counting my mistakes.” And this made her anxious.
Clearing Automatic Thoughts with EFT
Addressing automatic thoughts will also gradually release the limiting core beliefs. Here, instead of addressing the core beliefs directly, we address the automatic thoughts first. (Note: We also work on the feelings and the specific negative events with EFT.)
Using Sandra’s example:
1. Addressing the Thought as It is: Addressing the content of the thought as it is.
Even though I think that if a person disagrees with me, he does not like me, I still love and accept myself.
2. Addressing the Inaccuracy of the Thought: Automatic thoughts are often not accurate (“If he is late he may have met with an accident”). Sometimes they can be fairly accurate but maladaptive. (“It will take so much time to get over this relationship”). Sometimes they are accurate but the conclusion a person draws from them is distorted. (“I did not get high marks in high school. I disappointed my teacher. Therefore I’m unworthy”). These thoughts can be assumptions, generalizations, labels, filters for only negative information, catastrophic predictions about the future etc; all indications of dysfunctional automatic thoughts that need to be worked upon.
EFT for the inaccurate thought:
Even though I think that if a person disagrees with me, he does not like me and even though this seems to be an assumption, I still love and accept myself.
Another round with, “I choose to release/change/work on this assumption”, will also help.
I have found that along with the focus on emotions, we do need to pay attention to automatic thoughts to bring about a long term emotional and behavioral change. This will reduce the daily reactivity and also empower people with information about why they feel and behave in a certain way. Our behaviors do not occur in a vacuum: thoughts and emotions play a significant role.
Reference: Beck, J. S. (1995) Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: Guilford Press.
Certified EFT Practitioner
From the EFTfree Archives, which are now a part of AAMET International.
Originally published on April 28, 2012.