Automatic Thoughts and Cognitive Distortions (Week 2)

Understanding the way we think about things is crucial to understanding how and what we feel. Many times, we accept negative thoughts as truth when in reality they are irrational thoughts that lead to negative feelings. If we can get in the habit of recognizing the thoughts we have, we may be able to see the connection between thinking them and these negative feelings.  If we’re able to do this, we may be on the road towards being able to replace the negative thoughts with ones that help us rather than hurt us.

Our thoughts are hypotheses or guesses that can be reality-tested. It’s not the thoughts that unnerve us but the meaning we give to those thoughts. We often think “if I think this, then it must be true.” After we get good at noticing our thoughts, our next steps are: looking at the validity of these thoughts then and offering yourself a more rational, balanced, open-minded alternative view.

But the first step is noticing. You can approach it from the beginning or the end. You can start w/looking at the initial thought, and try to notice whether it’s a negative thought.  Has it led to a bad feeling? Or, if it can’t work to start from the present, try to retrace your steps. Think about a possible precipitating event or interaction that may have triggered your bad mood. You can examine it closely and try to notice the thought(s) that came after it. This thought led to an emotion. We can turn this thought on its head and next time, we may not get hooked by it. It may not send us on spiraling downward if we prove it wrong, and find another thought that has been proved (with evidence) to be more accurate and helpful.


Examples of common types of negative thoughts or “Cognitive Distortions:”

  • Either/or thinking – it’s “all or nothing” (Polarized thinking or Dichotomous Reasoning)
  • Personalizing thinking what others around you say is always related to you, or a reaction to you
  • Comparing ourselves to others (e.g. someone complimenting another person sends you spinning into self-criticism)
  • Focusing on negative/glass half-empty, Selective Abstraction or Filtering
  • Blaming ourselves even when you didn’t do anything, or holding others responsible for our pain, seeing ourselves as victims.  Feeling unable to change our views or our circumstances. (e.g. “She made me feel terrible” or “If he hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have reacted that way.”)
  • Mind-reading – believing other people agree with negative opinions about us (without any real evidence)
  • Catastrophizing – worst case scenario thinking; over-estimating the likelihood of calamity and underestimating our ability to cope
  • Over-generalizing  – you’ve got one example, now it’s “always” or “never”
  • Mislabeling – describing an event with language that is emotionally loaded
  • Mistaking feelings for facts
  • Fortune-telling – Negative expectations accepted as fact even before they happen. Expecting a certain outcome often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
  • Magnification & filtering – believe the negative details and filter out all the positive ones
  • SHOULD, OUGHT, MUST statements – unrealistic thoughts, rigid rules and no flexibility when thinking of yourself or others’ behavior. This can also be called Fairy Tale thinking, where you find yourself setting up an image of what you expected life to be like. Everything’s a let down after that. “That isn’t fair!!”

Exercises to try:

1) When you’re feeling stressed, angry, depressed – STOP, take a breath. Try to describe the feelings: in writing, to a friend, to yourself.


2) What bodily sensations are you having?


3) Try to remember what might have just happened to trigger this. Did something upsetting just happen? Did you have a thought that came before this emotion? Try to pull back.


4) If you were able to identify the thoughts, try to rate your belief in them. Is it possible to ask yourself – is this a fact or an assumption? Is there proof for it, facts to support it?


5) Ask yourself if you want to change your negative feelings about the situation (you could list advantages and disadvantages to doing so).


The goal with Automatic Thoughts is to RECORD, RATIONALIZE, and REPLACE. Write down, or begin to notice upsetting events in detail. Write down each thought in reaction to the event. If we can’t “catch” our negative thoughts, we can’t examine and challenge them. Next: figure out which “cognitive distortion” (above) you might have used. Eventually, we will learn to replace these thoughts. One helpful tool on the way to this goal is to think about what you would say to a friend. The more you practice noticing your thoughts, the more you will be able to make helpful and effective changes using the CBT tools we will utilize in MAST.

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