How Your Automatic Thoughts May Be Influencing Your Moods

Being single has its advantages. Searching for a mate can be a lot of fun. So why is it that so many singles are feeling depressed and anxious?

As it turns out, the feelings of stuckness, panic about singlehood, and anxiety about never meeting a soulmate have little to do with the situation itself, and everything to do with how one thinks about the situation. In other words, it’s your thoughts that are making you depressed, not your circumstances. The story you tell yourself about being single is where the impasse occurs.

Let’s take a more intimate look at this. All of us go through our days with a running commentary in our heads that lets us know if something is good or bad, what we should or shouldn’t be doing, if we’re worthy or not worthy of love, if we’re good looking or not good looking, and so forth. It’s our story and it’s based on years of repetitive thinking patterns.

You’re doing it right now. You’re having all kinds of thoughts about the words in this article. You’ve probably already decided whether or not I know what I’m talking about, and whether or not you’re going to put much weight on what follows in the next paragraphs.

So, what about these automatic thoughts? How are they interfering with your life? Let’s look at an example: You are sitting at your local Starbucks and there’s a good looking guy sitting at the next table. You make eye contact and do your flirtation thing with him. He gets up and leaves the coffee shop. What do you tell yourself about this? Probably something like “he didn’t find me attractive,” or “I’m never going to meet anyone” or “I’m so lameâÂ?¦I should have been brave enough to go over and talk to him.” So you have these thoughts (you may not even be aware of them because they happened so quickly) and then suddenly you notice that you’re feeling down and depressed. You’re not sure why. Minutes earlier you were feeling happy and joyful.

Guess what? Your thoughts influence your moods. Beyond that, your moods influence your behaviors. So, for instance, in the example above, your behavior might be to go home and seclude yourself in the house for the weekend because you’re feeling so depleted.

Are you getting the idea here? It’s not the cute guy who ignored you that made you depressed. It’s the story you told yourself about why he ignored you. There might be a million alternate explanations for why he left. Perhaps he thought you were cute too and got so nervous that he bailed out! Maybe he already had a girlfriend and therefore wasn’t attuned to your flirtation. It’s possible that he was running late for an appointment, thus his attention and focus were elsewhere. There are any number of explanations, however because of your automatic thinking, you chose to tell yourself a story about how undesirable you are.

Becoming aware of your automatic thoughts is just the first step in the healing process. Next you have to be willing to relinquish some of those thoughts. You can systematically challenge and dispute them; find out if they’re valid; question if they’re accurate; reflect on your history and see if you’re running old, dysfunctional tapes through your brain.

This is not about the power of positive thinking. No one is proposing that you trick yourself into believing something that isn’t real. This is not about putting a smile on your face so that everything looks rosy. Rather, this is an invitation to illuminate old thinking patterns that have got you trapped.

Let’s use another example. You walk into a singles event and you’re about 15 minutes late. When you get there, everyone is grouped off in small gatherings, laughing and chatting. You don’t recognize anyone and you’re told at the sign-in desk that there will be mingling and socializing for the next hour.

What are some of the negative thoughts that might go through your mind? Here’s one: “If I go up to someone to talk, I might panic and run out of the room.” Challenging that thought takes a willingness to become introspective. Will you really panic? What are the chances of that happening? And if you DO panic, what’s the worst that will happen? What would you tell a friend in this same situation? In the end, you might come up with a more accurate thought that looks like this: “Okay, maybe I will panic for a short time, but even if I do, it will pass. I won’t go crazy, I won’t die, and I won’t make a fool of myself. My heart may pound for a short time, but that will go away. It always has before.”

Without catching this automatic thought and challenging it, what might you do at that point? Go home? Wait for someone to talk to you? Go into the bathroom and hang out until the more structured event begins? Have a few drinks? Feel sad and depressed? What is the effect of believing the negative thoughts? What would be the effect of changing those thoughts? Replacing your original, unproductive thought with a new, more rational one is likely to lift some of your depression and anxiety.

In therapy, we refer to maladaptive automatic thoughts as cognitive distortions. All of us fall into the trap of irrational thinking from time to time. The goal is to try to catch yourself when it’s happening. Some of the more common cognitive distortions include magnification (example: My car broke down and I’m going to miss the singles event tonight. I’ll never find a girlfriend now); all or nothing thinking (example: I just have to meet someone tonight. If I don’t, I might as well throw in the towel for good); should statements (I should have been married by now. People my age shouldn’t still be going on dates); and catastrophizing (example: That date last night proved it once again. I just know I’m never going to meet the right girl. It just wasn’t meant to be for me).

Now, what do you to stop yourself from thinking in these unproductive ways? A technique frequently used in cognitive-behavioral therapy is to put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it every time you notice you’re into the cognitive distortion again. The rubber band snap is not intended to be a punishment. Rather, it’s a reminder that “you’re doing it again.”

Next, begin to log your automatic thoughts in a journal. Be mindful and challenging about each one. Ask yourself: what is the evidence for or against the thought?; what are the probabilities (for instance, what are the chances that you will ALWAYS be alone? Or NEVER have another girlfriend/boyfriend?); how have you coped in the past with thoughts like this?; what is the best that could happen?; what is worst that could happen?; what is the most realistic picture of what will happen?

Automatic thoughts come from long-held beliefs we each have about ourselves, others, the world, and the future. We tell ourselves: “I’m not as interesting as other people. I never win. I always screw things up. I’ll never be successful. I’m different than everyone else.” These old tapes are referred to in therapy as core beliefs or schemas. Being human, we tend to look for evidence to support these core beliefs. So, if I believe I am not interesting, every time someone’s eyes divert away from me, I might get depressed and interpret the distraction as evidence that indeed I am a boring person. Ensnared in cyclic thinking, my story about myself rules once again.

Stopping the cycle of automatic thinking and evidence gathering is taxing. Becoming mindful of the recurring and rhythmic patterns you have fallen into takes a lot of hard work. The rewards of doing so, however, can impact just about everything in your life. Remember, the way that you think about any person, event, or situation is only your story. Becoming unstuck may simply be a matter of changing the narrative.

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