Automatic negative thoughts and core beliefs are the two main roots of anxiety and depression.  People who suffer from anxiety and depression, usually have a maladaptive thought process that is generalized and highly negative.  They also tend to struggle with low self esteem and feelings of worthlessness.  This thought process is triggered by automatic negative thoughts and reinforced by the negative views of self call core beliefs. To fight anxiety and depression it is necessary to identify and challenge your automatic negative thoughts and core beliefs so you can develop healthier and more adaptive ways of interacting with the world.  This tip is designed to explain what automatic negative thoughts and core beliefs are, discuss how they affect anxiety and depression, and help you identify your own. 

Automatic negative thoughts: are quick, evaluative thoughts that occur during or right after a negative or stressful situation.  They spring up automatically and are brief.  Automatic negative thoughts are not based upon reason and deliberation. You are usually not aware of the thought itself and are more likely to notice the intense emotional reaction following the thought.  Everyone in the whole world has automatic negative thoughts, but people with anxiety and depression are more likely to react strongly to them.  Most automatic negative thoughts are directed at yourself in response to the situation.  They are a hallmark of depression and anxiety because they affect how you view situations so that instead of being able to move on, you will respond with sadness, frustration, shame and guilt. Common examples of automatic negative thoughts include: “Why did I do that?” “I’m so stupid.” “This stuff always happens to me.” “I have no control,” or “what’s wrong with me?”  Automatic negative thoughts are the quick, surface level thoughts that are the gateway to your negative core beliefs. 

Core beliefs: are the deepest values and most central ideas you hold about yourself, others, and the world.  In fact, they are so deep that most people are vaguely aware of them and definitely don’t share them with anyone else.  Core beliefs are developed early on in childhood and fall into one of two categories.  Most people with anxiety and depression have maladaptative core beliefs which make them feel as though they are either helpless or unlovable or both.  As you grew up, you learned these beliefs about yourself and your world and at that time they helped you get through tough situations.  Therefore, at some point in you life these core beliefs were adaptive and healthy for your situation.  However, now that you have grown and are in a different situation, these beliefs don’t apply anymore and have become maladaptive.  For example, felling like you have no control over your life or thinking like no one will ever be able to love you will undoubtedly increase worried thoughts and depressed mood. Some examples of maladaptive core beliefs are “I’m a failure,” “I don’t deserve love,” “I’m a bad person,” or “I must be perfect or no one will love me.”

As said before, since automatic negative thoughts and maladaptative core beliefs are the root causes of anxiety and depression, identifying your own will be the key to beginning your recovery. You learned your core beliefs as you were growing up and going through various life experiences.  They have evolved with you over time and have shaped your perceptions.  The good news is that since you learned that your core belief has become maladaptive, you can re-learn how to interact with the world and fine tune your core belief to become healthier for your current situation. So how do you identify these thoughts and core beliefs that are so intense and deep that most people are not aware of them?  The first thing you have to do is to tune your brain into your emotions.  Lots of people will say, I’m feeling down and I just don’t know why.  Or a co-worker may come to you and notice your acting stressed out but you can’t pinpoint the cause.  Most likely, the cause is your negative thoughts and beliefs about yourself that you’re not aware of.  Perhaps, you feel anxious about a big presentation?  Are you questioning your position at work?  Did you have a fight with a friend?  Do you feel insecure in your relationship but don’t know how to express it? 

These are examples of situations that can be triggering for anxiety and depression.  When you find yourself in these situations, your maladaptative core beliefs will become activated and you will begin to view yourself and the world from that negative point of view.  To get more in touch with your negative thoughts and core beliefs, start by tracking your mood on a daily basis.  Use a simple 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being not anxious or depressed and 10 being the most anxious or depressed you have ever felt.  Pick a time of day when you can be reflective, such as before bedtime.  Take about 5 minutes and look back over your day.  Did anything major happen?  Were you hungry, tired, stressed, happy, or sad for the most part?  Did you have any physical ailments today?  Did things go well? What would you like to do differently?  Answer these questions, then rate your emotions using the scale. 

After a whole week of reflecting and rating, look for patterns.  On that scale of 1 to 10, where did you most often find yourself?  Was you anxiety and depression high this week, or very low?  If you notice a few days that were really high, take a closer look at those days’ events.  Clear your mind, and while looking back on the triggering situation, notice your immediate thought and reaction.  It’s probably crass, rude, and mean about yourself.  If your boss offered criticism on Wednesday and your anxiety went to an 8, you automatic negative thought may have been “I’m so dumb, I always get yelled at.” 

Now that you have the automatic negative thought, you can search deeper for the core belief.  Take that thought and ask yourself: “What does that say about me?”  Keep asking the same question until you feel as though you have nothing else to say about yourself.  Your downward spiral of answers may look like this: “I’m dumb.  I never do anything right.  I can’t be trusted with projects.  I’m going to loose my job. I’m a failure.”  When you get to a definitive point, you’ve reached your maladaptative core belief.  This core belief is the anchor of your anxiety and depression.  When you feel a spike in negative emotions and don’t know why, it’s because this belief has been activated and until now, you weren’t aware of it.  Becoming aware of your core beliefs will allow you to inspect, challenge, and change them do you can regain control over your emotions and reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. 

Identifying the automatic negative thoughts and maladaptive core beliefs is the first step to treating your anxiety and depression.  It’s hard work to look inside yourself and see what’s not working right.  While everyone in the world has automatic negative thoughts and maladaptive core beliefs at times, most are not able to take that step and start to fix them.  Congratulations, you’re on your way to fighting your anxiety and depression.  If you keep going deeper, stare your core belief in the face, and challenge it, you can beat your depression and anxiety.

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