What Are Automatic Negative Thoughts?

My therapist often mentions automatic negative thoughts and how important they are. She’s done a good job of explaining how they work. I think I have a better understanding now of what automatic negative thoughts are and why they matter in my CBT therapy.

My therapist said that we usually have two streams of thoughts in our mind at the same time.

  • One stream of thought is the one that we are always aware of. It is whatever we are consciously thinking about. Like right now I am thinking of the best words I can use to explain to you what I just learned about automatic negative thoughts.
  • The second stream of thought is like a running commentary that evaluates what’s happening and how we are dealing with the situation. This second stream of thought is telling me now things like “I am doing such a poor job at explaining what automatic thoughts are,” “I shouldn’t have any hopes that understanding this better is going to help me feel better.”  This second stream of thought is a rather automatic flow of criticism that is hard to stop. But what I can do is be more aware of it. Automatic negative thoughts come from this less conscious stream of thoughts.

Knowing what automatic negative thoughts are is only a start. The trickiest part of the process is learning to catch myself and identify the automatic negative thoughts. Here’s how I am going about it:

First, whenever I am having any stressful emotion I pay attention to what’s happening, what I am feeling, and all that is in my mind at the moment. Then I go ahead and record a Stress Log exercise.

Then, I try to become aware of everything that is in my mind at the moment. How I am assessing the situation and myself, what kind of commentaries or judgment I have about what is happening. If I have a hard time finding any automatic negative thoughts I ask myself the following questions:

  • What does the stressful situation mean to me?
  • What does this mean about myself and my self-esteem?
  • Am I predicting anything bad about the future because of what’s happening now?
  • Are there any images or videos playing in my head?
  • Could I be assuming any consequences of the current situation that are making me feel so bad?
  • How do I judge what is currently happening? My role? The consequences for my future?

After I fill out a Stress Log, including a description of the situation, my feelings and my automatic negative thoughts, my therapist can log into her account and see my work. When we meet in person she helps me clarify things even more.

Here’s a tutorial on how the Stress Log can help you identify Automatic Negative ThoughtsStress Log Tutorial