Automatic thoughts: How you can identify and fix them

June 21, 2021 - 17 min read

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How can automatic thoughts affect your emotions?

Automatic thoughts and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)

6 benefits of identifying and replacing automatic thoughts

5 risks related to automatic negative thoughts

3 automatic thoughts examples:

How to identify automatic thoughts

How to replace automatic thoughts

Tools to help you

Take back control over your automatic thoughts

You may have heard of automatic thoughts. And you most definitely will have experienced them in your life.

Automatic thoughts are ones that pop into our heads in response to a trigger. They can make us feel like we’ve lost control of our own thoughts. They fill us with anxiety, guilt, and other negative emotions.

Thankfully, there's a way to regain control. You can identify and replace your automatic thoughts.

Let’s discuss what automatic thoughts are. We’ll go over some automatic thoughts examples and how you can start down the path of seeing them for what they are and replacing them with more productive thought patterns.

What are automatic thoughts?

As you may have guessed, automatic thoughts are the kind of negative self-talk that appears immediately, without us even being aware of forming a thought, in response to a certain stimulus. They're often irrational and negative for our mental well-being.

Each person’s automatic thoughts may be different from the next person's. They're usually related to our life experiences. Plus, our fears or the messages we've internalized for years. They can be about ourselves and others.

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These internalized messages are also known as core beliefs.  While we each have our own mix, you may be surprised to know how similar people's negative automatic thoughts can be.

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How can automatic thoughts affect your emotions?

Our emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, are the result of our thoughts. Emotions don’t just appear out of thin air. They appear as a reaction to the interpretations we have about our reality.

Specifically, a negative automatic thought can trigger unpleasant emotions. Negative automatic thoughts can emotions such as generate anxiety, sadness, frustration, guilt, anger, or unworthiness.

For example, if your automatic thought when you get a new assignment is "I always fail," you're likely to feel depressed or unworthy as a result. Not a good emotional state for starting off a big project or getting to work on Monday morning. 

Everyone experiences negative emotions. We can't, and shouldn't, avoid them. But, we don't need our automatic thoughts adding more negative burdens. If we aren't aware, they create negative feelings that can affect how we behave and become self-fulfilling. 

This is why it’s important to work on becoming aware of our negative automatic thoughts and managing them. They are the route of many unnecessary, unpleasant emotions. By challenging and redirecting our thoughts, we're able to regulate the way we feel.

Automatic thoughts and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)

CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is a type of psychological therapy that's used to promote mental well-being for people whose thoughts interfere with living. For example, when dealing with social anxiety and depression. 

Using CBT, psychotherapists help people identify destructive thought patterns. That includes automatic thoughts. A therapist helps the person develop strategies for challenging their thoughts and changing them into more constructive thought patterns.

The goal is to help people first become aware. Then they learn to control their thought patterns so they are less harmful to their mental health and less disruptive to their life. 

CBT users don’t just achieve this during their sessions with therapists. But also by working outside of the sessions using self-monitoring worksheets. 

This way, patients of cognitive therapy are able to incorporate this practice into their everyday lives. They become more and more agile in identifying each thought pattern and changing them.

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6 benefits of identifying and replacing automatic thoughts

Automatic thoughts are a problem because they are so, automatic. Just shining a light on them and becoming aware can be very helpful to many people.

Here's a list of the positive effects of identifying your automatic thoughts:

1. Recognize the problem

The first step to modifying an unhealthy pattern is to recognize and name the problem that's maintaining it: automatic thoughts. Knowing that an automatic thought is bringing you down can be a big relief.

Once you've named the problem, it becomes much easier to analyze it and find a solution.

2. Plan a solution

This implies planning out how we are going to tackle each negative automatic thought. Working with the necessary tools to transform this pattern into a healthy and constructive one. 

3. Redirect our emotion

As we mentioned earlier, our thoughts have a domino effect on our emotions. If we manage to shift a negative thought, we can spend less time on unnecessary negative emotions. It becomes easier to acknowledge the unpleasant and redirect our emotions into more productive ones. 

4. Get a sense of control

Instead of letting your automatic thoughts dictate your emotions and your life, you can turn things around and become more in control. This sense of control is already calming in itself and is able to bring us a sense of relief. 

5. Take the blame off ourselves

Some automatic thoughts transform us into our worst critics, blaming ourselves for the way we feel and the things that happen to us. It can be exhausting. Life is challenging when your own thoughts are undermining you.

Being able to shift this pattern enables us to see a different side to the story. One where there’s room for other interpretations. It transforms us from a martyr or a loser into a person who deserves our compassion, care, and support. 

6. Find support

Once we are able to understand our patterns and normalize them, they become easier to talk about with loved ones. We're then able to seek support from others if needed, which is extremely therapeutic and healing in itself.

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5 risks related to automatic negative thoughts

There are many risks associated with automatic negative thoughts. Let’s take a look at five of them:

1. Unpleasant emotions

Our negative automatic thoughts can cause us to feel unpleasant emotions. These include things such as sadness, anger, or frustration. We can't avoid unpleasant emotions, but automatic thoughts can make it hard not to wallow there. 

2. More negative automatic thoughts

The more negative automatic thoughts we have, the more we dig the hole. We create more and more of them. It can feel like you are under attack from the inside and weaken your ability to be objective or rational. When our mental fitness and conditioning aren't strong, we are more susceptible to this negative spiral when we face certain triggers.

3. Victim role

There are two roles we can have: victim or player. 

The victim role is stuck in the phrase: “Things happen to me, and I can do nothing about it.” And the player role lives by the phrase “I'm responsible for how I respond to what happens to me. Creating certain control over my life.”

Negative automatic thoughts usually put us in the victim role. Which might be comfortable. It takes the pressure off us because “we can’t control what happens.” But it’s also very limiting.

4. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is when we interpret the world around us in a way that reinforces what we already believe. With automatic thoughts in the driver's seat, we look for evidence that supports those thoughts.

For example, you think "I am not worthy" and go through the day collecting examples of ways people didn't value you. You ignore or underplay the evidence that people do value you. It ends up becoming our reality. 

Without examination, our automatic thoughts unconsciously dictate the way we act. For example, I am an unworthy person so I stop speaking up or caring for my self-presentation. Which can create the exact situation we were thinking about.

5. Reduction in mental well-being

Our unhelpful automatic thoughts can become very powerful if we don’t work on them. This is why they can threaten our mental health and cause things like social anxiety or depression.

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3 automatic thoughts examples:

Automatic thoughts can be very varied, but a few examples are:

  1. “I’ll never find a job that fulfills me”:

This thought is a clear example of catastrophic automatic thinking. Which means we base ourselves off of certain information. And come to the conclusion that the worst outcome is going to happen to us.

  1. “I am a failure as a husband/wife/partner”:

This is a case of selective abstraction — where we pay attention to a certain piece of information and ignore the rest of the information and context. 

In this case, we could be focusing on one mistake we've made as a husband/wife/partner. But we are not taking into account the positive qualities that debunk this automatic thought.

  1. “Everyone is going to hurt me”:

This automatic thought is dictated by what we call “generalization.” It happens when we assume that we are going to relive this in various other contexts that aren’t the same as the initial one. Usually due to one negative experience (in this case, being hurt by someone.)

How to identify automatic thoughts

To illustrate how to identify automatic thoughts, let’s consider an example:
Kalyn had a very busy day at work, and she feels tired and spaced out when she arrives home. After a while, her husband Jack says he’s upset because she didn’t notice he was feeling sad that day and hadn’t asked him what was wrong. 

In this moment, Kalyn feels sad, frustrated, and anxious for not having noticed her husband’s struggles. She thinks to herself, “I’m a terrible wife. I’m not good enough for Jack. I bet he'd be happier with someone else. I should have noticed.”

Now let’s talk about the steps Kalyn could take to identify her negative automatic thoughts:

1. Identify unpleasant feelings

The first step to being able to recognize we are experiencing negative automatic thoughts is to pay attention to our emotions.

Kalyn would identify sadness, frustration, and social anxiety. If she notices she is experiencing unpleasant emotions, she can use this as the key to unlocking the thoughts that made her feel that way.

2. Identify the thought that resulted in those feelings

The second step is to backtrack and think, “What are my feelings reacting to?”

In Kalyn’s case, she'd find that her feelings were the result of her automatic thoughts, and she'd be able to pinpoint what these are.

3. Recognize a pattern

Automatic thoughts usually make us fall into unhealthy patterns. They repeat themselves and reinforce the image we have. Both of ourselves and our interaction with others. And the image we have of others.

Kalyn might recognize that she usually resorts to these automatic thoughts whenever she has a disagreement with her husband. Or just feels like they've had an unpleasant interaction.

4. Identify possible cognitive dissonance

Let’s say the same thing happened to a friend of yours. Would you have the same thoughts about their experience?
If the answer is “no,” then you are experiencing cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance is when we use a biased interpretation of reality simply because it’s happening to us.

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 How to replace automatic thoughts

Replacing automatic thoughts can be challenging because they come from deep inside. They are rooted in our core beliefs about ourselves and the world. It can be easier to think about managing them than expecting to just push them out with a positive affirmation. Here are three steps you can take to begin replacing them:

1. Challenge your thoughts (Socratic dialogue)

To achieve this, it’s necessary to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Is there objective evidence for me to think this way? What proof do I have?

Automatic thoughts are usually based on subjective interpretations of reality. Not taking into account objective evidence that can debunk our way of thinking at that moment.

  • Is there an alternative thought I could be thinking?

This helps us brainstorm and open our conscious minds to alternatives that may be healthier for our mental well-being. It also helps us to see that our automatic thought isn’t as rigid as we imagined.

  • Do I recognize a bias in my thoughts?

As mentioned earlier in this article, automatic thoughts can usually be based on cognitive biases, such as generalization or black and white thinking. A bias works like a foggy cloud over our judgment and our interpretation of reality. It does us no favors when it comes to our mental health.

  • How is this thought benefiting me?

We have to ask ourselves if there's a positive aspect to thinking that way, and if the answer is “no,” then we know something has to change.

2. Replace the automatic thought with a healthier rational thought

Just repeating positive affirmations isn't very helpful. But deliberately reframing a negative thought into a healthier thought can create a better emotional state. And it helps you build new thought patterns.

This new thought must be:

  • Realistic: based on real evidence.
  • Objective: no room for interpretation.
  • Constructive: helps us advance rather than put ourselves down.

In the beginning, this technique might feel forced. But eventually, the more we practice it, the easier it gets with time. Until it turns into an unconscious natural process that benefits our mental health.

3. Write it down and keep practicing

During the whole process, it might be helpful to write these exercises down. To become more aware of our thought patterns and how we are holding ourselves accountable when it comes to transforming them.
This has to become a conscious decision we make to take care of our minds every day.

Take back control over your automatic thoughts

An automatic negative thought can send us spiraling into anxiety and other negative feelings.

Using the tools above, we can do some cognitive restructuring on our automatic thoughts. We can replace them with more productive and rational thought patterns instead.

The risk to our overall mental health from not dealing with automatic thoughts and negative automatic thinking is too important to ignore.

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Published June 21, 2021

Alexia Roncero

BetterUp Care Coach

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