Negative and/or fearful patterns of thought are almost always present as a symptom of depression, anxiety, stress overload, traumatic stress, and even substance abuse. These thought patterns may include the typical catastrophizing and negative prediction statements built from key words such as should, should’ve, shouldn’t, must, never, always, can’t, won’t, what if, etc. These thought patterns, at times, can become so habitual we may never even notice them. We’re not deliberately trying to think them and most of the time we are not even aware of them. We can refer to these types of thoughts as automatic – they just seem to pop into our heads.

Automatic thoughts, especially during times of depression, anxiety, high stress, traumatic stress and substance abuse, are typically distorted in some way yet we remain unaware of their unrealistic nature. We may experience a shift in mood or a strong emotional response to automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts may elicit a behavioral response and we may react to them as if they are actually true. They may inform or dictate our decisions and our beliefs, about ourselves and others.

Below is a simplified cognitive model demonstrating the role automatic thoughts may play in an interpersonal interaction:

Stimulus – My partner seems upset.

Automatic Thought – “It must be me, I never do anything right”

Emotion – Sadness, guilt, worry/fear/anxiety

Behavior – Withdraw/Isolate/Shut down, get angry, anxious rumination

It’s possible your partner truly is upset, but in reality, it has nothing to do with you. Now, you are experiencing unwanted emotions, possibly behaviors, and both of you are upset – all because of a distorted automatic thought that isn’t even true.

Identifying and evaluating automatic thoughts is a routine part of recovering from depression, anxiety, trauma and substance abuse. We can learn to identify automatic thoughts when we notice our mood is changing, or when we notice a strong emotion arising. We can then learn to evaluate the thought in order to decide if it is actually true, untrue or somewhere in between. Evaluation provides some space or distance between the thought and the response, gives us more options, and helps enhance problem-solving and self-efficacy.

A simple exercise can help us identify automatic thoughts more readily. Whenever you notice a shift in mood or a change in your emotional state, simply ask yourself: “What was just going through my head?” After identifying the automatic thought, you can then explore its validity and challenge it if needed.