Automatic Thoughts vs. Conscious Thoughts

Picture of a brain lit up with machine pieces inside of it.

Beyond our conscious minds is something that is called the automatic mind. This is responsible for processing information automatically, that is, without our conscious awareness. In other words, this is the part of our minds that allows us to understand our surroundings and experiences without us having to focus on things individually. That would be exhausting, not to mention overwhelming!

Automatic minds are active in pretty much everything we do. For example, when we drive, we may be paying attention to the road, but simultaneously thinking about the day’s events. Maybe we’re mulling over a conversation we had with a coworker, or trying to figure out if we left the stove on. This is our automatic mind at work – we’re able to think about our day whilst managing to move our hands on the wheel, our feet on the pedal, and watch the road all at once! When the need arises, however, we can seamlessly shift towards conscious attention. In most cases, we snap out of our unconscious reveries when we realize we’re approaching our exit or need to make a turn to reach our destination.

Understanding the Dynamic – Automatic vs. Conscious Mind

Our thinking can operate on two levels – conscious and unconscious, or automatic. Sigmund Freud was a pioneer in this field and his work examining the unconscious mind is well documented. However, psychology has progressed a long way since then. In Freud’s theories, the unconscious mind was a battlefield where a war waged between instinct, which existed in the dark corner of our minds called the id, and our level-headed problem-solving egos. According to Freud, we developed defense mechanisms like repression, projection, and displacement to protect our conscious minds from this battle within ourselves. This understanding of how the mind works largely influenced the dichotomy between reason and passion that was especially popular in the 20th century.

These days many cognitive psychologists perceive the mind a bit differently.  For example, rather than seeing our unconscious minds as some sort of battlefield full of inner conflict and turmoil, they perceive it as an automatic mind full of sophisticated information. These days, our unconscious mind is more of a processor that sifts through all of our stimuli to allow us to better prioritize and respond to information. In fact, we owe a lot of our daily behaviors to these automatic processes which enable us to act outside of our ordinary awareness.

Introducing the The Mind Trap

Negative thinking can operate on an automatic level. This happens when we find ourselves falling habitually into negative mindsets. Dr. Jeffrey Nevid, Director of the Clinical Psychology program and Professor of Psychology at St. Johns University explains: “when our thinking becomes reflexive or automatic, we suspend our ability to control how we think about our experiences.  We feel angry because we think angering thoughts, sad because we think depressing thoughts, and anxious because we think worrisome thoughts.” Dr. Nevid refers to these automatic negative thoughts as “mind traps,” and they are usually distorted and exaggerated, especially when consciously compared to reality. However, if we don’t point these negative thoughts out, they can continue to harm us unconsciously, leaving an impact on our overall emotional and mental health.

Emotions Cannot Exist in a Vacuum

Dr. Nevid explains that “emotions cannot exist in a thought vacuum any more than fire can exist in an oxygen vacuum.” According to him, our troubling emotions are actually the result of excess meanings which we impose on events we experience. To become aware of these misconceptions, he suggests that we can become better aware of them, and, as a result, we can correct them by inserting rational alternatives instead.

Dr. Nevid provides an example in the form of the teachings of ancient stoic philosopher Epictetus. He says that “we are not influenced by things themselves, but by our opinions or interpretations of things.” It is for this reason that in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) patients are guided by therapists through processes of identifying their triggering thoughts which contribute to their emotional distress. Through this they are then taught to substitute these thoughts with more rational and adaptive modes of thinking.

We can learn to both recognize and correct disruptive thoughts which lead to behavioral problems and emotional turmoil. A rational dialogue with oneself can make a big difference in terms of dealing with troubling emotional effects like anxiety, depression, worry, and anger.