Automatic Thoughts

Every time I go to the hairdresser, I learn something new. The conversation at my salon yesterday revolved around “automatic thoughts”. These are unbidden images or words that flash into your mind in a seemingly random occurrence. One person described having an automatic thought on the way to work as she was driving. She instantly “saw” a big wreck where she watched herself running to a burning car to help. Anyone who has ever driven the Bypass in the Outer Banks on a Saturday in the summer can relate to this sudden image while driving. It’s dangerous out there, folks!

Automatic thoughts can be negative or positive. I find in times of great concentration or stress that my mind will conveniently supply an automatic thought of someplace I’d rather be. Suddenly I’ll flash on walking around the lake in a beautiful town called Celebration in Florida, or seeing a botanical display at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Those images will creep up without warning, giving me a 5 second respite from my work. When automatic thoughts are negative and related to emotional triggers, they can be problematic. Help can be found in working with a cognitive therapist to untangle the auto response. In the case of the car wreck image, it made the person drive more carefully and be alert to other drivers, which is a good thing.

I have always longed for a way to help people develop an automatic thought response that brings the peace, hope and contentment that they lack. That is why I began writing these devotionals. When folks are in a deep hole of despair, the stress of their situation only pulls them farther and farther down. It is in times like these that the automatic thoughts can be most harmful. Sad, hopeless and despondent thoughts just continue to spiral in times of trouble. I want to be able to help them manufacture a positive automatic response that would focus on thoughts that uplift, and rebuke the darkness.

I often wonder if that was what the Psalmists were doing. The Psalms were written as songs for the journey. They describe great challenges, intense pain, and life threatening situations, but they are balanced with great anticipation of God’s activity and presence. The positive images far outweigh the negative, serving as point-counter-point to the dark. Look at Psalm 23, one of the most beloved Psalms:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

    through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

    for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

    in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

    my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

    all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord


David wrote that, and David had trouble. Most of it was a result of his own activity, but he had trouble indeed. And yet in his darkest moment, he forced himself to counter his trouble with a positive auto response and wrote “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, FOR YOU ARE WITH ME.”

Today, let’s try to create an auto response like David. When the negative thoughts try to intrude, say back to them, “GOD IS WITH ME.” When bad images flash unbidden in your mind, shake them off and say, “GOD IS WITH ME.” If you feel yourself slipping into the deep, stand up and yell, “GOD IS WITH ME.”

Go in peace. God is with you.

Photo by Kathy Weeks.

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