How Automatic Thoughts
Affect Habits

by Cherry Pedrick, RN
Reprinted from,
February 7, 2002, Revised

Since the 1960s, doctors such as Aaron T. Beck and Albert Ellis have developed cognitive approaches to the treatment of all kinds of problems, ranging from depression and anxiety disorders to substance abuse, chronic pain, and relationship problems. Cognitive therapy begins with the idea that our emotions and behaviors are a result of the way we interpret and appraise the things that happen to us and around us. We base our appraisal on the circumstances, our mood, and past experience, among other things. When we recognize this, we can go on to discover different ways of appraising and interpreting situations and new ways of reacting to them.

For example, when I am nervous, upset, or worried, past experience tells me that eating a “comfort food” will help me feel better. Then after indulging I might think, “Well, I’ve blown it, I may as well give up on a diet and eat what I want.” I might also think, “I am weak and horrible because I can’t control my eating.” Just as realistic, and kinder, thoughts that are more productive would be, “So I ate a donut. It sure tasted good. But I still have the worries. Just because I ate a donut doesn’t mean I can’t continue on with my healthy diet. And eating a donut doesn’t make me weak or horrible.”

The second set of thoughts isn’t condemning and they encourage me to continue with my healthy diet. It may seem like you can’t control your thoughts. Indeed, we aren’t even aware of many of our thoughts. We call these “automatic thoughts.” We tend to be especially deaf to our thoughts that lead to habitual behaviors. It appears that we just act, but in reality, we think and then we act. If you stop and listen, you’ll find that you can change them. Listen, and you will become aware of what you are telling yourself.

For the next couple of weeks, purchase a small notebook and record your thoughts and behaviors every time your habit shows up. Not just when you are engaging in the habit, but every thought and behavior that leads up to it. At first, you will have difficulty with this, you might just suddenly find yourself doing what you don’t want to do, but then you’ll begin to see the first automatic thoughts and the first behaviors. For example, you might discover that your hand doesn’t just show up in your pocket, jangling keys. You will catch your hand moving toward your pocket.

We’ll discuss this more in the next several weeks and you’ll learn ways to detect unhealthy thoughts that keep your habit going and change them to healthy, positive thoughts that help you break bad habits. For now though, just recording your automatic thoughts and becoming more aware of them will help you take the first steps in recognizing and changing them.

Be sure to check out The Habit Change Workbook:
How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones