Automatic Thoughts and the Song Stuck in Your Head

May 16, 2017: This post has been featured on The Mighty as “When ‘I Want to Die’ Replays Like a Song Stuck in My Head”

Note: This post discusses suicide ideation and may be triggering. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


I want to die.

This is a thought that plays over and over in my head, endlessly, without prompting or any feasible substance behind it. I want to die. I want to die. To die. Die. And I have no real reason for this. I have no evidence as to why I should die, or any idea of why this desire is so strong. I can’t say, “I want to die because…[fill in the blank].” There is no blank. There is nothing. But it’s there, all the same. The words, like a tape on loop, playing until I can’t stand to hear them anymore. I want to die. I want to die. I want to die.

It hits me at all times of the day, every day of the week. This and phrases similar are the soundtrack in my head. I’m worthless. There’s no point. I want to die. I’m worthless. There’s no point. It’s automatic. Like muscle memory. I try to fight it, replace it with something different, but the work seems futile. It always comes back—the song stuck in my head—the melody I’m so used to hearing.My therapist says that the brain can be rewired, the tune changed. I don’t always have to live in minor key. Sometimes I believe her, on the good days, when the band isn’t playing quite so loud. Sometimes, when the involuntary “I want to—” arises, I quickly correct it—“No I don’t.” Because I don’t. I don’t really want to die. That is just, as I said, a refrain in my head. No more significant than the annoying repetition of “Never Gonna Give You Up” or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “We Are Never (Ever, Ever) Getting Back Together.” But this isn’t as simple as a pop song. I can’t sing the words aloud without someone pouncing on me, out of concern or fear or judgment—“Are you okay?” “What’s wrong?” “Suck it up.” I don’t like to worry people, and I don’t like to feel invalidated, so I keep the thoughts to myself. These words seem dangerous, but if they’re in my head, they can’t hurt anybody but me. It turns into a game of self-sacrifice. Strap me to a post and let the sirens sing; as long as I do not act, what damage is done? And they’re just words, right? Thoughts, swimming aimlessly?

After a while, thoughts can be grating. They become less amorphous, more definitive. If the thoughts aren’t combatted, or at least challenged, they grow and become worse. Instead of I want to die, the phrase alters.  I need to die. I have to die. There’s no point, becomes There’s no other option. And then there’s no fighting.

Automatic-thoughts1-992x558In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, an “automatic thought” is exactly as it sounds: a thought (rational or not) that occurs automatically, usually in response to a stressful situation. Automatic thoughts have been, evolutionarily, very useful because they cause appropriate feelings and behaviors in anxiety-inducing situations. If you’re in the middle of the street and a car barrels toward you, your automatic thought is likely, “I’m in danger!” which causes feelings of fear and anxiety, which prompt you to move, and quickly.

Situation → Thought → Feeling → Behavior
Car barrels toward you → “I’m in danger!”→ Fear/Anxiety → Run Away!

Automatic thoughts become not-so-useful when the brain reacts irrationally to everyday stressors. Over time, the brain can train itself to respond to stress in a certain way, usually as a result of long-term environmental factors (e.g., where and how we grew up, past relationships, our educational experiences, etc.). As a result, small things like forgetting to call someone or accidently missing a work deadline can escalate into high-stress feelings and behaviors.

 

For example, because my very first romantic partner was emotionally manipulative, I tend to be wary of others’ motives when beginning a new relationship, even if my prospective partner is the sweetest, most caring person I’ve met in a long time.

Situation: A date brings me flowers

Thought (triggered by a past event): “This person is trying to gain my trust and use me.”/ “Nobody really wants me anyway.”


Feeling: Distrust/Fear/Hurt


Behavior: I never call said person again

Or, because I never felt good enough growing up, due to my parents’ and teachers’ high academic standards, I now criticize even my most minor mistakes, and have formed unproductive habits.

Situation: I have a 10-page report due for a class in two weeks

Thought (triggered by long-term behavioral reinforcement): “I cannot this mess up.”/ “I’m a terrible writer.”/ “I’m never good enough.”


Feeling: Anxiety/Fear of Failure


Behavior: Hardcore Procrastination

Or, because I often felt emotionally disconnected from my family and peers as a child, I can sometimes take even the slightest social interactions very personally, and often my response entirely irrational.

Situation: A friend forgets to text me back

Thought (triggered by long-term behavioral reinforcement & past events): “She is mad at me.”/ “She doesn’t care about me.”/ “No one cares about me.”/ “It wouldn’t matter if I weren’t around.”/ “I want to die.”


Feeling: Hurt/Anger/Anxiety/Depression


Behavior: Social Withdrawal/Suicidal Ideation

Unproductive automatic thoughts tend to be generalizations, to have little evidence to back them, to spiral downward quickly, and to lead to damaging behaviors. Dealing with negative automatic thoughts is hard because they are often so ingrained in the way we think that we don’t even notice them until they’ve already done their harm. In my personal experience, the best way to deal with negative thoughts (once I begin to notice them) is to treat them like an annoying song stuck in my head: listen, question, and if all else fails, just say no.

When the thought pops up—I want to die—I hear it, I listen to it. I do not act on it. Sometimes, thats all you need to get the song out of your head.

When that alone doesnt work, I try to figure out where the thought is coming from. (“Why?? How?” I say. “Why This? Why now?”) Identifying and questioning emotions is key to understanding negative thoughts. If I can pinpoint a feeling, I can trace it back to the thought in some way. In the above case, “I want to die” is linked to feelings of loneliness and anxiety. When I feel lonely, I sometimes jump to the conclusion that nobody wants me around (and, to take it a step further, that nobody would miss me if I were dead). When in reality, a lot of people would miss me if I were gone, and a lot of people would love to enjoy my company in that moment. Applying logic to an illogical thought usually negates the thought. The fact that my friend didn’t text me back does not mean my life is worthless. She might just be busy, or not looking at her phone. She could be angry, depending on the situation, but she is entitled to anger, and her anger won’t last forever. Her actions, or lack thereof, are not a reflection of me as a person.

Sometimes, when my mood goes dark, it’s hard to think logically. Sometimes, the thoughts keep playing and playing and playing until I can’t bear to listen anymore. In this case, distracting myself and shutting out the thoughts is the best method for dealing with them. It does not solve any long-term problems, but it gets me through another night without harming myself. No matter how catchy or effortless those thoughts might be, I try to remind myself that, like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” or Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” there is very little substance to them, and they are best listened to on mute. My point is, getting caught up in negative automatic thoughts is easy, and they are extremely difficult to shake, but oftentimes, they are not worth the struggle. And, just because I think, “I want to die,” does not make the sentiment true. I very much enjoy living, even if my melody tends toward melancholy.

Click for a video breaking down Automatic Thoughts and some methods for dealing with them.


If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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