Everybody has thousands of thoughts per day. Some are helpful and uplifting ("I'm glad I did that", "I really like being here"), and some are more downbeat ("I'll never be able to do this", "I'm a waste of space"). Negative Automatic Thoughts are particularly problematic - they often seem plausible at the time, but in actual fact they are unduly negative and can lead us to feel anxious or depressed. Thought records are a key part of cognitive behavioural treatment. They are useful for a number of reasons:
- They make our negative automatic thoughts visible to us
- They help us to identify any problems with our thinking
- They help us to make changes to our thinking
How to catch your automatic thoughts
Try using the Simple Thought Record below to catch some of your negative automatic thoughts.
When should I fill in a thought record?
The best times to complete a thought record are when you experience a big change in emotion. For example, when you notice that you suddenly feel sad, or if you notice yourself becoming panicky. Chances are that you have just had a thought or image.
If you can, it is helpful to fill in the thought record at the time when you notice your emotion change. If you can't fill it in at the time then try to complete it as soon as possible afterwards.
How do I fill in a thought record?
First you need to prompt your mind to think about the situation that you are trying to describe:
- Note the date & time
- Note where you were
- Note who you were with
- What was happening just before you noticed a change in how you were feeling?
Next you need to describe your emotions
- Feelings can generally be described using one word (e.g. Angry, Sad, Excited)
- Rate the strength of the emotion on a scale of 0-100% (if you recorded more than one emotion give a separate rating for each)
- (See the 'Understanding emotions' page for more information)
Finally you need to write down your thoughts (and images)
- What was going through your mind in that moment?
- What were you saying to yourself?
- Did you have an image/picture/memory in your mind? (If you did: what did it mean? What does it say about you?)
Identifying unhelpful thinking
Catching thoughts is the first step. Once you can catch your automatic thoughts you can examine them to see how helpful or unhelpful they are. Everybody thinks in unhelpful ways from time to time - our thoughts can become 'wonky' - and there are a number of typical unhelpful thinking styles. They become problematic if we do them a lot. You might notice that you do some of these more than others.
Challenging unhelpful thinking
Once you have identified your negative automatic thoughts you have a chance to do something about them. If a thought is truly 100% accurate then it's okay to leave it alone. Often, though, our negative automatic thoughts aren't the most helpful way to look at a situation.
How do I work out whether I'm thinking in unhelpful ways?
Look at your thought on the thought record and compare it to the unhelpful thinking styles form. Ask yourself whether your thought could, even just a little bit, reflect one of these styles.
How do I challenge my unhelpful thinking?
Go throught the steps of the Thought Challenging Record challenge your negative automatic thoughts.
Steps of thought challenging
- Identify the thought you want to work on (only work on one thought at a time)
- Give it a belief rating. How strongly do you believe in the truthfulness of that thought right now?
- Make a list of all the reasons why that thought might be true. Some of these reasons might be better than other, but don't censor anything - just write them all down. Keep asking yourself "What is the evidence that makes me think this thought is true?"
- Now make a list of all the reasons why this thought might not be 100% true all of the time. You might find it helpful to ask yourself:
- If a friend thought this about themselves, what would I say to them?
- When was the last occasions this thought wasn't true?
- What facts or evidence make me suspect that this isn't completely true?
- Have there ever been any times when this wasn't true?
- Now read, out loud if possible, the original thought, all of the reasons why it might be true, and all of the reasons why it might not be true
- Say to yourself "Given all of the evidence, is there a better way of summing up this situation?"
- Is there a more helpful way of thinking about myself or this situation?
- Have I been judging myself too harshly? Is there a fairer, more balanced way of summing this up?
- Write down your new thought
- Rate how strongly (0-100%) you believe in the new thought and your old thought
Thought record worksheets
Use this to identify your automatic thoughts
Use this to find out what your typical patterns of unhelpful thinking are
Use this to challenge your negative automatic thoughts, and to generate more helpful ways of thinking
References and further reading
Burns, D. D. (1989). The feeling good handbook: Using the new mood therapy in everyday life. William Morrow & Co.
Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over mood: A cognitive therapy treatment manual for clients. Guilford press.