The cognitive-behavioral model (as depicted below) suggests that three layers of cognitive dysfunction exist in individuals struggling with social and/or psychological problems: Automatic thoughts, intermediate beliefs, and core beliefs. An automatic thought is a brief stream of thought about ourselves and others. Automatic thoughts largely apply to specific situations and/or events and occur quickly throughout the day as we appraise ourselves, our environment, and our future. We are often unaware of these thoughts, but are very familiar with the emotions that they create within us. Maladaptive automatic thoughts are distorted reflections of a situation, which are often accepted as true.
Automatic thoughts are the real-time manifestations of dysfunctional beliefs about oneself, the world, and the future that are triggered by situations or exaggerated by psychiatric states, such as anxiety or depression. Intermediate beliefs are attitudes or rules that a person follows in his/her life that typically apply across situations (not situation specific as with automatic thoughts). Intermediate beliefs can often be stated as conditional rules: “It x , then y.” For example, “If I am thin, then I will be loved by others.” Individuals create these assumptions by categorizing the information they receive from the world around them. These rules guide thoughts and subsequently influence behaviors. Dysfunctional core beliefs drive dysfunctional rules and automatic thoughts. For example, the belief, I am unlovable, may be driving the conditional rule, If I am thin, then I will be loved by others, which may drive obsessive thinking about one’s appearance, excessive exercise, or disordered eating habits.
Core beliefs are often formed in childhood and 45 solidified over time as a result of one’s perceptions of experiences. Because individuals with psychological disorders tend to store information consistent with negative beliefs but ignore evidence that contradicts them, core beliefs tend to be rigid and pervasive. Although automatic thoughts are often tied to a specific situational trigger, intermediate and core beliefs are more global and cut across domains. Beck suggests that individuals tend to have core beliefs that involve either interpersonal (“I’m unlovable”) or achievement issues (“I’m incompetent”).
Dr JC Coetzee Christian Clinical Psychologist, Psychotherapist, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Centurion, Midstream, Midrand, Pretoria.