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Automatic thinking refers to the automatic thoughts people have in response to things happening around them.
The types of automatic thoughts a person is likely to have can affect their health outcomes, as well as their overall quality of life.
This article will cover what automatic thinking is, how it affects people’s lives, what automatic thoughts look like, and how to break the cycle of negativity with positive thoughts.
This article contains:
- What Is Automatic Thinking?
- Our Cognitive Bias: Construction Of The Self-Concept
- Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Triad
- 50+ Examples of Positive & Negative Automatic Thoughts
- Cognitive Restructuring Of Core Beliefs & Automatic Thoughts
- 5 CBT Worksheets For Challenging Negative Self-Talk & AT’s
- A Take Home Message
What Is Automatic Thinking?
Automatic thinking refers to the automatic thoughts that stem from the beliefs people hold about themselves, such as those beliefs that are of interest to rational-emotive behavior therapy and other cognitive-behavioral therapies (Soflau & David, 2017). Automatic thoughts can be considered “surface-level, non-volitional, stream-of-consciousness cognitions” that “can appear in the form of descriptions, inferences, or situation-specific evaluations”.
As the name indicates, these automatic thoughts cannot be directly controlled by people, since they are reflexive reactions based on the beliefs people hold about themselves. People can indirectly control these thoughts, though, by challenging the beliefs that lead to them.
Relevant research into automatic thinking began with Aaron Beck’s research into how negative automatic thoughts affected the development of depression (Beck et al., 1979). Before long, researchers decided that positive automatic thoughts were also important to study, and particularly the relationship between positive automatic thoughts and negative automatic thoughts (Ingram & Wisnicki, 1988). There are a variety of consequences to being disposed towards negative automatic thoughts rather than positive automatic thoughts.
For example, in people with depression and HIV/AIDS, negative automatic thoughts are associated with depressive symptoms, and vice-versa (Riley et al., 2017). In athletes, negative automatic thoughts can lead to burnout (Chang et al., 2017). Finally, in a sample of university students without any shared physical or mental health conditions, automatic thoughts had significant impacts on mental health and self-esteem, with negative automatic thoughts leading to more mental health symptoms and decreased levels of self-esteem (Hicdurmaz et al., 2017).
Our Cognitive Bias: Construction Of The Self-Concept
Self-concept refers to how one perceives themselves, their past experiences, their abilities, their prospects for the future, and any other aspect of the self. Aaron Beck’s cognitive triad, discussed below, deals with self-concept and the construction of the self. The basic idea of how our self-concepts and cognitive biases affect our lives has to do with automatic thoughts.
For example, someone with a negative “self-referential schema” is more likely to take things personally, leading to automatic thoughts like “People are not talking to me because I am an unlikable person”, rather than exploring other possibilities (Disner et al., 2017). A negative self-referential schema can also lead to increased severity of depression symptoms. Most importantly, a negative self-concept can lead to an unending cycle of negative thoughts.
This is because people with negative self-referential schemas exhibit an attentional bias. For example, when asked to decide whether an adjective is self-referential or not, people with depression are more likely to endorse negative adjectives than healthy controls, and they show an attentional bias by being quicker to endorse negative adjectives and quicker to reject positive adjectives than healthy controls (Disner et al., 2017). In turn, being likelier to endorse negative adjectives is correlated with longer “retrospectively reported” depressive episodes, demonstrating the cycle of negativity.
Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Triad
According to Beck et al. (1979),
“[the] cognitive triad consists of three major cognitive patterns that induce the patient to regard himself, his future, and his experiences in an idiosyncratic manner”.
According to Beck’s cognitive triad, someone who is depressed will automatically have a negative view of themselves, their experiences (that is, the things that the world around them causes to happen to them), and their future. According to this model, “the other signs and symptoms of the depressive syndrome” are “consequences of the activation of the negative cognitive patterns”.
This is because a depressed person:
“tends to perceive his present, his future, and the outside world (the cognitive triad) in a negative way and consequently shows a biased interpretation of his experiences, negative expectancies as to the probable success of anything he undertakes, and a massive amount of self-criticism” (Beck et al., 1979).
In other words, people who are depressed have a negative view of themselves and their lives, and these negative views lead to (further) symptoms of depression.
These symptoms of depression then lead to people having a negative view of themselves and their lives, and as discussed in the previous section, this also leads to a cycle of negativity.
50+ Examples of Positive & Negative Automatic Thoughts
So how do automatic thoughts actually present themselves? Since automatic thinking research began with negative thoughts, let us begin with negative automatic thoughts. According to the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-30) developed by Hollon & Kendall (1980), some examples of negative automatic thoughts include:
“I feel like I’m up against the world.”
|“I can’t get things together.”
“I hate myself.”
“Wish I could just disappear.”
“What’s the matter with me?”
“I’m a loser.”
“My life is a mess.”
“I’m a failure.”
“I’ll never make it.”
“I feel so helpless.”
“Something has to change.”
“There must be something wrong with me.”
“My future is bleak.”
“It’s just not worth it.”
“I can’t finish anything.”
According to Ingram & Wisnicki (1988), some examples of positive automatic thoughts include:
|“I am respected by my peers.”
“I have a good sense of humor.”
“My future looks bright.”
“I will be successful.”
“I’m fun to be with.”
“I am in a great mood.”
“There are many people who care about me.”
“I’m proud of my accomplishments.”
“I will finish what I start.”
“I have many good qualities.”
“I am comfortable with life.”
“I have a good way with others.”
“I am a lucky person.”
“I have friends who support me.”
“Life is exciting.”
|“I enjoy a challenge.”
“My social life is terrific.”
“There’s nothing to worry about.”
“I’m so relaxed.”
“My life is running smoothly.”
“I’m happy with the way I look.”
“I take good care of myself.”
“I deserve the best in life.”
“Bad days are rare.”
“I have many useful qualities.”
“There is no problem that is hopeless.”
“I won’t give up.”
“I state my opinions with confidence.”
“My life keeps getting better.”
“Today I’ve accomplished a lot.”
While the 30 items listed above are indeed examples of automatic thoughts, the automatic thoughts questionnaire-revised (ATQ-R) (Kendall et al., 1989), which is a measure still used as a basis for automatic thinking research (Koseki et al., 2013), lists the following ten items as examples of automatic thoughts (along with the 30 negative thoughts listed above):
|“I’m proud of myself.”
“I feel fine.”
“No matter what happens, I know I’ll make it.”
“I can accomplish anything.”
“I feel good.”
|“I’m warm and comfortable.”
“I feel confident I can do anything I set my mind to.”
“I feel very happy.”
“This is super!”
“I’m luckier than most people.”
Cognitive Restructuring Of Core Beliefs & Automatic Thoughts
Positive automatic thoughts can offset the negative effects of both negative automatic thoughts and stress in general.
For example, people with high levels of positive automatic thoughts are likely to respond to stress by feeling that their lives are more meaningful, while people with low levels of positive automatic thoughts are likely to respond to stress by feeling that their lives are less meaningful (Boyraz & Lightsey, 2012).
Furthermore, higher levels of positive automatic thoughts are correlated with higher levels of happiness as well (Lightsey, 1994).
This indicates that in order to have better mental health outcomes, one should reduce their negative automatic negative thoughts and increase their positive automatic thoughts, in order to have a healthier balance. This is because some negative thinking is natural, so it is not a matter of completely eliminating negative thoughts but outweighing them with positive thoughts. One way to do this is with cognitive restructuring (CR), which involves (Hope et al., 2010):
- “identification of problematic cognitions known as ‘automatic thoughts'”
- “identification of the cognitive distortions in the ATs”
- “a rational disputation of ATs with Socratic dialogue”
- “development of a rational rebuttal to the ATs”
Research in CR with automatic thoughts indicates that effective CR might focus on “Negative Self-Evaluative ATs”, such as situationally-based evaluations. One example would be a situation where one’s automatic thought when faced with an uncomfortable situation, might be “I don’t know what to say” (Hope et al., 2010). This is because these thoughts are easily disproved with exposure and role-playing. Another effective CR method when dealing with “other-referent ATs” (as opposed to “self-referent” ATs) is to minimize the consequences of the negative automatic thoughts, such as by asking oneself “So what if she thinks you are boring?”.
Aside from CR, research indicates that people with higher levels of dispositional mindfulness are also less likely to experience automatic negative thoughts, potentially because they can more easily let go of negative thoughts or direct their attention elsewhere (Frewen et al., 2008). That study also indicated that a mindfulness intervention derived from both mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) was effective at reducing negative thoughts. This indicates that along with positive thinking, mindfulness is another way to counteract negative automatic thinking.
5 CBT Worksheets For Challenging Negative Self-Talk & AT’s
For practical ways to challenge and dispute negative automatic thinking, one can try using one of these worksheets:
Automatic Thoughts from Therapist Aid
This is a simple worksheet which starts by offering some information about automatic thoughts and their consequences. The rest of the worksheet is split into three columns: Trigger, Automatic Thought, and New Thought, which aims to help people understand and dispute (if necessary) their own automatic thoughts. This worksheet is a great introduction to automatic thoughts.
Characteristics of Negative Automatic Thoughts
This 14-page worksheet is a deep dive into negative automatic thoughts, what causes them, how to identify them, and how to start disputing them. This worksheet is not as directly useful as others for finding replacement positive thoughts, but by helping people better understand their negative automatic thoughts it may indirectly lead to replacement positive thoughts. This is a great option for just about anyone interested in negative automatic thoughts because it contains so much information that there is bound to be something new for everyone.
Thought/Feeling Record Worksheet
This worksheet, unfortunately, does not come in the form of a PDF but is valuable enough that it is worth printing out and working through anyways. This worksheet helps the user really focus in on a specific negative automatic thought and examine what triggered it as well as its consequences. Once one really understands the negative automatic thought, this worksheet helps turn negative thoughts into positive thoughts. This worksheet is excellent for someone looking to extensively examine their individual thoughts.
Positive Thought Replacement Worksheet
This worksheet simply asks one to list all the automatic negative thoughts that come to their mind, then asks them to thoughtfully come up with alternative positive thoughts they can replace the negative thoughts with. Since this worksheet does not offer information about automatic thoughts, it is a good option for someone who does not need to learn more about automatic thoughts but is simply ready to start replacing their negative thoughts with positive thoughts.
Appendix 1 Worksheets and Checklists
This 10-page worksheet, which seems to be the appendix to a book on CBT, serves as a self-directed treatment plan revolving around automatic thoughts. It includes an automatic thoughts checklist (where one can just check off automatic negative thoughts they have experienced, rather than having to generate them on their own), a “Thought Change Record” which aims to help people dispute negative thoughts, a “Schema Inventory”, where one can find out if they have any dysfunctional underlying schemas (such as “I’m stupid” or “I’m a fake”), and much more. This extensive worksheet is a great option for people who want to use self-directed CBT to deal with their automatic negative thoughts.
A Take Home Message
Negative automatic thinking not only leads to poor mental health outcomes, but it can also lead to a cycle of negativity since certain mental health issues can lead to further negative thoughts. While these thoughts can seem impossible to avoid, one can use positive thinking to counteract these thoughts. Through CBT methods, one can even train themselves to think more positive thoughts in general.
At times, “the power of positive thinking” can sound like nothing more than an inspirational cliché. In this case, though, having healthy beliefs about oneself can lead to positive automatic thinking, which can indeed be beneficial. Most importantly, thinking positive thoughts and having positive beliefs does not cost anything, so it does not hurt to do one’s best to try.
- Beck, A.T., Rush, A.J., Shaw, B.F., Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York, NY: The Guilford Press
- Boyraz, G., Lightsey, O.R. (2012). Can Positive Thinking Help? Positive Automatic Thoughts as Moderators of the Stress-Meaning Relationship. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 82(2), 267-277. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.2012.01150.x
- Chang, K.H., Lu, F.J.H., Chyi, T., Hsu, Y.W., Chan, S.W., Wang, E.T.W. (2017). Examining the stress-burnout relationship: the mediating role of negative thoughts. PeerJ, 5(1), e4181. doi:10.7717/peerj.4181
- Disner, S.G., Shumake, J.D., Beevers, C.G. (2017). Self-referential schemas and attentional bias predict severity and naturalistic course of depression symptoms. Cognition & Emotion, 31(4), 632-644. doi:10.1080/02699931.2016.1146123
- Frewen, P.A., Evans, E.M., Maraj, N., Dozois, D.J.A., Partridge, K. (2008). Letting Go: Mindfulness and Negative Automatic Thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32(6), 758-774. doi:10.1007/s10608-007-9142-1
- Hicdurmaz, D., Inci, F., Karahan, S. (2017). Predictors of Mental Health Symptoms, Automatic Thoughts, and Self-Esteem Among University Students. Psychological Reports, 120(4), 650-669. doi:10.1177/0033294117707945
- Hollon, S.D., Kendall, P.C. (1980). Cognitive self-statements in depression: Development of an automatic thoughts questionnaire. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 4(4), 383-395. doi:10.1007/BF01178214
- Hope, D.A., Burns, J.A., Hayes, S.A., Herbert, J.D., Warner, M.D. (2010). Automatic Thoughts and Cognitive Restructuring in Cognitive Behavioral Group Therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 34(1), 1-12. doi:10.1007/s10608-007-9147-9
- Ingram, R.E., Wisnicki, K.S. (1988). Assessment of Positive Automatic Cognition. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(6), 898-902. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.56.6.898
- Kendall, P.C., Howard, B.L., Hays, R.C. (1989). Self-referent speech and psychopathology: The balance of positive and negative thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 13(6), 583-598. doi:10.1007/BF01176069
- Koseki, S., Noda, T., Yokoyama, S., Kunisato, Y., Ito, D., Suyama, H., Matsuda, T., Sugimura, Y., Ishihara, N., Shimizu, Y., Nakazawa, K., Yoshida, S., Arima, K., Suzuki, S. (2013). The relationship between positive and negative automatic thought and activity in the prefrontal and temporal cortices: A multi-channel near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 151(1), 352-359. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2013.05.067
- Lightsey, O.R. (1994). Thinking Positive as a Stress Buffer - The Role of Positive Automatic Cognitions in Depression and Happiness. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 41(3), 325-334. doi:10.1037/0022-018.104.22.1685
- Rana, M., Sthapit, S., Sharma, V.D. (2017). Assessment of Automatic Thoughts in Patients with Depressive Illness at a Tertiary Hospital in Nepal. Journal of the Nepal Medical Association, 56(206), 248-255
- Riley, K.E., Lee, J.S., Safren, S.A. (2017). The Relationship Between Automatic Thoughts and Depression in a Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment for People Living with HIV/AIDS: Exploring Temporality and Causality. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 41(5), 712-719. doi:10.1007/s10608-017-9839-8
- Soflau, R., David, D.O. (2017). A Meta-Analytical Approach of the Relationships Between the Irrationality of Beliefs and the Functionality of Automatic Thoughts. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 41(2), 178-192. doi:10.1007/s10608-016-9812-y