Automatic Negative Thoughts: What They Are, Causes, and How to Overcome Them
THC Editorial Team April 30, 2023
- What are Automatic Negative Thoughts?
- Types and Examples
- Causes and Risk Factors
- Potential Treatments
What are Automatic Negative Thoughts?
According to the cognitive model of therapy, automatic negative thoughts are self-statements influenced by negative underlying core beliefs and include negative thoughts about oneself, perceived threats from others, and the future.1 Automatic thoughts are “predominantly automatic… involuntary and hard to inhibit.”2 They are reflexive and often evade conscious control or scrutiny. After a person experiences a stressful event, the way that a person processes information may lead to the development of automatic negative thoughts.3
In the 1960s, Dr. Aaron Beck’s work on the cognitive theory of depression first emphasized the key role of negative thoughts on depression. Beck suggested that “negative automatic thoughts, generated by dysfunctional beliefs, were the cause of depressive symptoms, and not vice versa.” 4 According to Beck, maladaptive self-schema, or dysfunctional mental, emotional, bodily, and attitudinal patterns developed in early life, affect a person at core levels, and dysfunctional patterns can become triggered due to adverse life events, leading to negative thoughts.5
Born out of the work of Beck, Dr. David Burns’s 1980 best-selling book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, massively popularized the concept of automatic negative thoughts and the cognitive distortions from which they arise.
Types and Examples of Automatic Negative Thoughts
Some examples of automatic thoughts and their corresponding cognitive distortions as listed below.6
All-or-nothing thinking refers to seeing the world in dichotomous, absolute, black-or-white terms. Automatic thoughts that arise from this form of thinking, when a mistake is made might be, “I always mess everything up. I am a total failure.”
Overgeneralization occurs when a person draws universal conclusions from single events. For example, in the face of rejection, a person might think, “I am no good. No one will ever accept me.”
Mental filtering refers to picking specific (usually only negative) parts of an event and applying them universally. It often manifests as pessimistic thinking.
Disqualifying the Positive
Disqualifying the positive means not applying the same weight to positive events as negative ones. Essentially, it discounts good things that happen to a person and often sounds like, “They’re just being nice. I didn’t do anything particularly well.”
Jumping to Conclusions
Jumping to conclusions can mean prematurely coming to conclusions about ideas that could cause pain. These distortions can include mindreading, which assumes one knows what others are thinking without ample evidence, and fortune-telling, which involves making pessimistic and upsetting predictions for the future.
Magnification and Minimization
Magnification and minimization refer to either blowing things up or shrinking them out of proportion. Magnification is also referred to as catastrophizing.
Emotional reasoning refers to treating your feelings like facts and letting them guide you to make judgments about your state. Within the context of automatic negative thoughts, this may look like, “I feel like a failure, so everyone must think I am one, and I guess I am one.”
Self-blame or Other-blame
This refers to almost reflexively finding fault in oneself or another instead of discerning the problem through a neutral, investigative lens.
Causes and Risk Factors Automatic Negative Thoughts
Social cognitive theory suggests that a person’s negative thought processing system is usually inactive; however, stressful life events may activate this system, affecting one’s interpretations of events in life that can manifest as automatic negative thoughts and emotional pain.1
Life events, worries, and traumatic stressors, such as the death of a loved one, sickness, relationship turmoil, or separation, can aid in or trigger automatic negative thoughts.
Personality traits are associated with depressive thinking. Neuroticism, a reflection of emotional instability and stress sensitivity, is also related to developing depressive symptoms and automatic negative thoughts.3
Maladaptive perfectionism is a mental trait that tends to demand flawless performance and observes deviances from such expectations as a threat to self-esteem. It is also associated with negative automatic thoughts.7
Self-critical Thinking Style
Self-critical thinking refers to the internal dialogue that constantly and often harshly expresses anger and contempt towards oneself when one cannot achieve desired results. High levels of self-criticism are associated with depression.8
Adverse Childhood Experiences
Under abusive situations in childhood, especially prolonged ones, children’s negative thoughts and thinking patterns may be constantly activated, leading to a disturbed and pessimistic view of themselves, their experience, and the world.1
Physical abuse contributes to the development of automatic negative thinking patterns.1
Impact of Negative Automatic Thoughts
Constant negative thoughts can wear a person down. Some of the adverse effects of automatic negative thoughts include the following:
Increased Depressive Symptoms
Depressive symptoms are associated with negative thinking patterns. People with major depressive disorder (MDD) “often report self-deprecating thoughts and feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.” 2 These thoughts often seem unprovoked and spontaneous.
In a study of high school students in Turkey, researchers found that students who had automatic negative thoughts about the outcome of a task felt decreased motivation to study.10
Studies have found that automatic negative thoughts can lead to reduced academic success.10
Continuous negative thinking is associated with a negative self-concept.10
Resilience, the ability to adapt to and recover from adversity, is reduced through constant negative thoughts. In a 2022 study assessing how cultural and genetic factors in childhood maltreatment predict resilience, researchers found that increased automatic negative thoughts were associated with lower resilience in cases of childhood abuse and neglect.11
In a study examining the effect of negative automatic thoughts on hope in people with schizophrenia, researchers found that hope decreased as negative automatic thoughts increased.12
Emotional and Behavioral Challenges
Negative thinking patterns can lead to challenges with painful feelings and poor emotional regulation. In a study assessing life stress and emotional and behavioral problems in adolescents, researchers found that “negative automatic thoughts – not dysfunctional attitudes, emotion regulation difficulties or negative cognitive distortions – explain the association between change in life stress and emotional and behavioral problems in adolescence.”13
Measures of Automatic Negative Thoughts
Negative automatic thoughts can be measured through self-report questionnaires and clinical interviews. One of the more common measures of negative thinking is the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-30).
The Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ)
The Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-30) is an oft-used 30-item assessment that measures self-related negative automatic thoughts. It asks individuals to rate the frequency of specific negative thoughts over the past week on a 5-point Likert scale. The scale focuses on four themes:7
- personal maladjustment and desire for change
- negative self-concepts and negative expectations
- low self-esteem
Potential Treatments for Automatic Negative Thoughts
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based form of therapy that helps people identify, challenge, and replace cognitive distortions and automatic negative thoughts with more balanced thinking.
Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) was born out of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. MBCT combines mindfulness, meditation, and cognitive therapy to treat various conditions involving negative thinking patterns. MBCT provided in a group setting significantly reduced automatic negative thoughts in a study of 30 people with cancer.14
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) promotes acceptance, mindfulness, commitment, and behavioral strategies to improve an individual’s flexibility in response to life’s challenges. A randomized control trial showed that an online delivered ACT program had considerable favorable outcomes for participants with depressive symptoms. These included the frequency of automatic negative thoughts.15
Transactional Analysis (TA)
Transactional analysis (TA) focuses on how people interact with others, including their therapist, to demonstrate their ego states and the types of games and scripts they engage in within social settings. A 2021 study assessing the effectiveness of transactional analysis therapy on adolescent females with social anxiety found that TA reduced automatic negative thoughts in participants.16
Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of a condition, such as dysfunction, positive psychotherapy (PPT) emphasizes each individual’s strengths and ability to overcome distress and increase their quality of life. A few studies have shown the potential of PPT to help with various conditions, including depression.17
Self-compassion refers to a form of emotional regulation that is self-soothing to the self. Self-compassion can help prevent or treat depressive symptoms such as automatic negative thoughts.8
Self-acceptance involves seeing oneself as unique, worthwhile, and sound, appreciating oneself despite one’s achievements, flaws, and whether people are accepting or not. Higher levels of automatic negative thoughts are associated with less unconditional self-acceptance.9
Mindfulness-based interventions refer to a state of attention and awareness of the present moment, necessitating a nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Individuals with higher dispositional mindfulness “report a greater capacity to let go of their negative thoughts, and thus may perceive negative thoughts as being more controllable and less intrusive and bothersome.”18
Psychoeducation and Bibliotherapy
Bibliotherapy uses literature, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and self-help manuals, in the treatment process. Psychoeducation aims to develop an individual’s knowledge and understanding of a mental health condition to improve their managing and coping abilities. Psychoeducation and bibliotherapy have been shown to reduce dysfunctional thinking and automatic negative thoughts significantly.19
Journaling consists of exploring one’s thoughts and emotions through writing. Different types of journaling have developed and been shown to have various benefits, including gratitude journaling, reflective journaling, health journaling, CBT journaling, and goal journaling.
Any practice that involves conscious, focused breathing is a form of breathwork. It is used to help people heal, reduce stress, and promote personal development. Conscious, mindful breathwork can reduce anxiety and negativity and promote relaxation.
Emotional self-care refers to tending to one’s emotional self. It encompasses any actions a person takes to cope with stress, express emotions, and foster positive feelings about life. Identifying and acknowledging one’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and finding healthy ways to express these emotions can be considered emotional self-care.
Social isolation and loneliness are related to poor mental health. Social connectedness is necessary for our mental health and well-being.
A licensed psychiatrist may prescribe medication to treat underlying conditions associated with automatic negative thoughts, such as depression or anxiety. These may include antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or other medications.
Summary and Outlook
Automatic negative thoughts can get in the way of living well. Despite their often-troubling origins, there are many ways to potentially overcome them.