Automatic Thoughts: What are They and How can We Identify Them?

In this post, I will try to tell you about what automatic thoughts are and how to identify them.

Sometimes, all of a sudden, we find ourselves feeling depressed, anxious, furious, guilty… However, we can’t tell why. If someone asks, we can’t answer. Our mind is blank:

“I don’t know, I just don’t feel well today.”

or

“I’m afraid, but I don’t know what I’m afraid of.”

Ever experienced?

At times like these, the reason behind our unpleasant feelings might be a stressful thought, which we will refer to as an automatic thought. Especially, when we are feeling really powerful feelings, such as anxiety, it can be very difficult to identify that particular thought behind that feeling. This also happens if the thought is very familiar to the person. As the thought is more familiar, more accepted, like a part of the personality, it is more automatic, and the more automatic the thought is, the more difficult it is to detect it.

There are a few techniques, we use in cognitive therapy in order to help clients to identify their automatic thoughts. In this post, I will try to tell you how you can use some of these techniques to identify your own automatic thoughts, but first, let’s start with understanding what an automatic thought is.

What is an Automatic Thought?

We can have many thoughts at a moment. However, automatic thoughts are the ones that are most related to our powerful feelings. They are also called hot thoughts. They sound more like comments.

A few examples are:

“I won’t be able to pass the exam.”  Here, the feeling is anxiety, and the automatic thought is a comment that is predicting what will happen in the future.

“I shouldn’t have eaten that cookie.” Here, the feeling is guilt, and the automatic thought is a comment about what was done in the past.

“He should be more loving.” Here, the feeling is anger, and automatic thought is a comment about someone else’s behavior.

“I can’t do anything!” Here, the person is feeling depressed, and commenting on his own abilities.

Not Every Thought Needs to be Challenged

As you can see in the examples above, hot thoughts create powerful feelings. If a thought is not linked to a powerful feeling, or if it doesn’t affect our functioning, we don’t need to work on that thought. Here is an example to show how to make the distinction:

Chris, being a dad to 3, finds himself thinking “I have to pick up the kids from school at 5 pm. “ while reading some reports at work. He has this thought and then continues working. No powerful feeling, nothing to affect his work. In fact, here, reminding himself that he will be picking up the kids at 5 pm is functional because it is important for him to pick up the kids at the right time. 

Jack, being a dad to 3, finds himself thinking “I have to pick up the kids from school at 5 pm. “ while reading some reports at work. He starts to feel  anxious. Then, thinks “What if I can’t be there on time?” “What if they’ll have to wait there for me, in the cold. ” “Oh, they will get sick.” “I have to be there on time.” “I’d better leave early.” Jack is feeling anxious, and cannot continue his work. Here, the situation affects Jack’s functioning.  He might be at the school on time, but believing the thought is not helping him to achieve his goals related to his work and carreer. 

Not Every Thought Causing Powerful Feelings Can be Worked on as an Automatic Thought, BUT… 

Not every thought causing powerful feelings can be worked on as an automatic thought , but we can translate many stressful thoughts into automatic thoughts.

Here are a few examples:

“Will I be able to pass the test?” Notice that, here, the person is actually afraid of possibility of not being able to pass the test, and this is why he/she has such a powerful feeling (anxiety). It translates to “I won’t be able to pass the test.”

“What if he gets angry at me?” Again, the person is afraid of the possibility of him getting angry at her. This can be translated to “He’ll get angry at me.”

“Is he going to like me?” Here, the person is actually afraid of the possibility of not being liked by him, and this is why she is feeling anxious. Thus, it translates to  “He won’t like me.”

“She doesnt call because she doesn’t like me” Here, the person is sad/depressed because she thinks the reason why she didnt’t call must be that she doesn’t like her. Thus, it translates to “She doesnt like me.”

“How am I going to do all this?” The person is feeling hopeless/depressed. This can be translated to “I can’t do it.”

“How dare he treats me like this!” Here, the person is angry about someone’s behavior. She thinks his behavior is wrong. Thus, this can be translated to “He shouldn’t treat me like this.”

“I can’t believe I ate that cake!” Here, the person is feeling anger and guilt. This can be translated to “I shouldn’t have eaten that cake.”

Identifying automatic thoughts can be confusing, especially at the beginning. Please feel free to write at the comments section if you have any questions. I’ll help you out.

Now, let’s continue with some techniques to identify automatic thoughts.

Techniques to Identify Automatic Thoughts

1. Go Back to the Time When It All Happened

  • Try to identify your unpleasant feeling first, and then try to remember the time when your mood changed. You can think about the last time you felt this way, any time or the time your feelings were most powerful.

Where were you?

What were you doing? Washing the dishes? Did anything interrupt your action, like a phone ring, or a door bell?

What happened?

Just imagine your actions. As you think more about the details, it will get easier to find that particular moment that it all started.

  • Let’s assume that you are in that moment:

What are you thinking?

Are there any images in your mind?

If we had a camera that can show everything that is going on inside your head, what would we see? What would we hear?

Are you telling anything to yourself?

  • Sometimes, it is not easy to go back and imagine oneself in that situation again. If this is the case, we can try imagining someone else being in the same situation:

Imagine a person is in the same situation as you are/were. He/she has a speech bubble above his/her head.

What is written there?

2. Question the Meaning of the Situation

  • If you can remember the event after which you started feeling depressed, anxious, furious…, but you couldn’t identify your stressful thought yet, ask yourself:

What does it mean that it happened? …and that means …and that means? ,repeatedly.

Here is an example:

His boyfriend doesn’t answer Kelly‘s calls. She is thinking:

“He doesn’t answer my calls”.

“What does it mean that he doesn’t answer your calls Kelly?”

“I think he is going to leave me. “

“What happens if he does? What does it mean that he leaves you?”

“It means that he doesn’t love me.”

Kelly can stop here, and work on this thought: “He doesn’t love me.”And, then she can also continue:

“What happens if he doesn’t love you? What does it mean that he doesn’t love you?”

“I’ll be alone. Noone loves me.” Kelly can work on her thought: “Noone loves me.”

 

Here is another example:

Emily has an important exam coming in two days. She can’t sleep the night. One thought she stuck with is :

“I have to pass this exam.”  Emily can ask herself:

“What happens if i don’t?”

“I fail.”

“What happens if I fail?”

“I can’t graduate.”

“What happens if i don’t graduate?”

“I can’t find a job.”

“What happens then?”

“If i don’t have a job my parents will think I went to college for nothing, so they will be disappointed in me.” 

Emily can stop here, and work on this thought: “My parents will be disappointed in me if I can’t find a job.” and she can also continue:

“What happens if they will be disappointed in you?”

“Then, they don’t love me?”

“What happens then?/what does that mean?”

“It means that no one loves me. “

Now, Emily can question her beliefs about being loved.

3. Use the Feeling in Order to Reach the Thought

  • If your feeling is sadness, ask yourself:

What does this all tell about me?

  • If your feeling is anxiety/fear, ask yourself:

What is the worst possible outcome that can happen (in this situation)?

  • If your feeling is anger, ask yourself:

What does it tell about other people? What did they do that they shouldn’t have?

  • If your feeling is guilt, ask yourself:

What does it tell about me? What is it that I shouldn’t have done?

4. Record Stressful Feelings and Automatic Thoughts

You can record your automatic thoughts on a paper whenever you have an unpleasant feeling. You can do this for a day, or a week, or maybe more in order to see your specific stressful thoughts. You might as well see a pattern.

Here is how to do it:

Try to record what happened, how you are feeling, what are you thinking, and the date.

Here is an example:

This is all for today.

I think identifying automatic thoughts is one of the trickiest parts of cognitive behavioral therapy, but it does get easier with practice.

If you’re having trouble with finding yours, write it to me! I’ll be happy to help.

I would love to hear about your thoughts and ideas about this one! Can you identify your automatic thoughts? How is your experience? Anything you find challenging? Please share them with me below, or send me a message.

If could identify your automatic thought, and now interested in working on it, see the post “How to Challenge Automatic Thoughts” here: https://www.mindunderstandingitself.com/2018/07/01/challenge-automatic-thoughts/

Thank you very much for reading.

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