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  • Writer's pictureKim Gibson, MS, ATR, LPCC

CBT and Identifying one's Automatic Thoughts

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) believes that everything that happens to us causes us to have thoughts (cognitions), which influence our emotional and physical state and drive our behaviours.  Some events are almost universally upsetting. For example, being passed over on a job interview or losing a loved one. However, other events that are more neutral or even positive and can be misinterpreted.

Sometimes our automatic thoughts about an event or situation are biased & can cause distress. For example, let's say, someone texts a friend and they don't receive a text back right away. One person might think, "Oh, they must be busy. They will write me back later" and feel neutral about the situation. Another person might think, "Oh, I bet they are mad at me. I must have upset them" and feel really worried about the situation. Both of these conclusions are assumptions but you can see how one's automatic thoughts about an event (even the same event) can impact one's feelings and then behaviors. So a big part of the work in CBT therapy is identifying one's automatic thoughts (which are usually negative) & are referred to as ANTs (automatic negative thoughts).

Identifying ANTs is done in session. It often involves slowing down, reflecting and answering questions. It can also be done through homework (such as completing a thought record, journaling or even an art therapy project)   

After automatic thoughts are identified, therapy can help them shift . In session, a therapist can help you learn how to identify them and then challenge them by exploring them and reevaluating them. Shifting one's automatic thoughts can improve one's mood & help change behavior too.

How to begin identifying Automatic Negative Thoughts on your own: Some people can easily notice their thoughts and for others it is a struggle. And if it is a struggle for you, try and focus on your feelings or your behaviors first. When you notice a change in your behavior or when you notice an uncomfortable feeling, ask yourself what were my thoughts just then? What are my worrying or uncomfortable thoughts?  Then ask yourself: Are the thoughts about the present or the future?  If the thoughts are about the present  •  Are they true?  • Is there evidence to support these thoughts?  • Evidence against?  • How else might I think about this? How would someone else think?  If the thoughts are about the future  • Is this likely to happen?  • If it did, how bad would it be, what could I do?  • What physical feelings am I having? (often uncomfortable thoughts are related to depression or anxiety). • How can I reduce these? (possible coping tools: breathing, relaxation, distraction, naming the feeling, accepting, creating artwork) 

Identifying one's automatic thoughts is the first step in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In a future post, I'll outline the next steps, which are how to challenge & evaluate automatic thoughts.

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