Automatic Thought Records: Finding Alternatives to the Negatives

Note pad and penI want to introduce you to one of the most powerful and well-known clinical tools: the Automatic Thought Record (ATR). Used by cognitive therapists and others to help us see how our thoughts impact our emotions, this tool can help adjust our thinking to positively impact anxiety levels. Let me give you an example of an ATR here.

Take out a piece of paper and draw four columns. At the top of the first column, please write “event.” In the second column, write “automatic thoughts.” At the top of the third column goes “feelings,” and then “alternative explanations” goes on the fourth column. You have now created the outline for the ATR. Now, let me give you examples to write in and help you see how it works.

“Event” sounds formal, but it is merely a situation that arises throughout your day. Let’s say the situation here is your boss asks to meet with you. This would go in that first column. Now, our automatic thoughts, which tend to be negative, are the ones that come up almost rapid-fire. “I can’t believe he wants to meet with me. Does he want to talk about that thing from last year? I wonder if he is upset?” These kinds of thoughts are instant and can come up without evidence as to what the meeting will be about; we just have them.

With these kinds of thoughts, we will feel accordingly. You may feel anxious or scared, which is what you would then write in the third column. Now imagine if your thoughts were more like, “I can’t get a break. What’s up with that guy? He is such a (fill-in-the-blank)!” Instead of angst, for example, the feelings might be anger or irritation. Essentially, what this tool helps us do is illuminate how these automatic thoughts impact feelings and, therefore, that if we change our thoughts we can indeed adjust how we feel. So how do we do this?

The goal in writing these events out is to then get to the last column, “alternative explanations.” This is where we can then challenge ourselves to look for other reasons to explain the situation. For example, in the situation of the boss wanting to meet, there could be many different reasons—some even possibly positive ones. One alternative explanation is he just wants to update you on plans for the next year or to highlight what went well on a recent project. He may need more insight from you on the project or just want to get your opinion about something. Bottom line here is that there could be an infinite number of reasons for the meeting, and you do not need to jump to the negative.

Another situation is when someone cuts us off on the freeway. Automatic thoughts might include, “I can’t believe he did that. What a (fill-in-the-blank)! He didn’t even have to come into my lane at all.” These kinds of thoughts may bring out intense anger (feelings column). Wait! Wait! Wait, I say! What if that person was dealing with a crisis and just plain in a hurry? What if he was in his own, little world and didn’t even realize he was that close? This might have nothing to do with me at all. If I am able to get to these thoughts (alternative explanations), I won’t be angry.

You may be thinking, “You could be wrong, Stuart,” and that is my point exactly; we just don’t know. We need to be able to take a step back and understand that our automatic, negative thoughts do not come with tested research and hard evidence. This tool can help us challenge our negative thoughts and feelings that come with them. Know that we all have some negative thoughts and, when we are depressed, we tend to have more of them. Consider using this tool to help.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT, Anxiety Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • sally

    November 28th, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    I hate those times when someone says or does something and I automatically go into defense mode. What does this mean? Did I do something wrong? Does he or she want something from me that I don’t have the time or the energy to give? This is the method I always seem to head for even before I know the situation. I hope that by reading this it will keep me a little better focused and mindful that a request doesn’t always have to be about something negative,and that the ebst thing to do is to work through it all before jumping to conclusions.

  • Denise

    November 28th, 2012 at 5:56 PM

    A very nice article. Could be very helpful to so many people out there who react first and then think. If you observe the main reason why we tend to do foolish things most times, react in the wrong manner, is because we react quickly. We give no time to ourselves to think or weigh the situation. If an event occurs, we jump to a conclusion and the negative thought process or negative actions just follow without a gap.

    Now if we try and take some time to think I think that will lead us to a much easier route, a less stressful life and also avoid actions that may bring in a flood of problems on their own!

  • millie

    November 29th, 2012 at 12:48 AM

    Wow! Automatic Thought Record sounds like a great technique to see why we actually go off track and end up doing things that we wouldn’t with a calm mind.

    I think in addition to the review that this technique gives us about our own behavior,it also gives us an opportunity to see how we derive negative inferences and act on them in such a situation and how just a little thought and cool at a similar moment in the future can get us back to rational and positive thinking.

  • Grant

    November 29th, 2012 at 3:58 AM

    I would like to know how long it would take to completely re-train your mind to not automatically revert to the negative. To think in the positive from the get go. That would be an interesting little study for someone to pursue, and also how you would even go about re-training those pathways.

  • Kyra

    November 29th, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    I can say from personal experience that this is an excellent tool. My therapist really helped me to reframe my thinking with this exact thing. I realized that I was totally internalizing what everyone did. Really, I was being pretty self centered. Not everyone is doing something to me. Sometimes their actions reflect what is going on internally with them rather than how they are feeling about me.

  • William

    November 29th, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    This tool really helps people be understanding of other people. We could all use some of that in our lives. If everyone wouldn’t take everything so personally it would be awesome.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    November 29th, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    Thank you all! What wonderful thoughts and insight. Yes. We could all benefit from taking even a few more moments sometimes. Good thought Grant. I can tell you that along with retraining the mind to go to the positive is to first be excited about how quickly we can hush the negative thoughts or self-challenge. For example, if I am ruminating about possible negative ones for a few minutes, then can start challenging them within a minute, 30 seconds, and so forth, how wonderful this will be.

  • Jovan.M

    November 29th, 2012 at 12:44 PM

    I think with enough practice with this technique, I could actually overcome my impulsive habit. And hopefully that will lead to me not ending up fretting and putting myself under unnecessary stress so often.

  • Casey

    November 29th, 2012 at 3:43 PM

    Well try saying a word and different people will have different things pop up in their minds. Give a situation and the same happens. This also determines how people react to the situation. So we have some people who will automatically end up doing something undesirable in a particular situation.The tricks o the trade can be learnt though. So out with your papers and pens and on with ATR!

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    November 29th, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    Good luck Jovan!


    November 30th, 2012 at 6:59 AM

    Oh this sort of spontaneous negative thoughts put me through hell!Almost everything plays out negatively in my mind.And although things may turn out to be a lot better than I thoughts,that in-between period can be very difficult.

    This is a technique I have never heard of before and is something I shall definitely try.Thank you very much for this,this is something that is totally going to be useful for me and I hope it works well.Thanks :)

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    November 30th, 2012 at 1:11 PM

    Of course Harold. Good luck!!!

  • Melissa

    December 4th, 2012 at 9:28 AM

    This is such a helpful tool! Just by discovering this article, I now have another choice besides my automatic reaction to situations. It Will help balance my thinking and therefore my behavior. Thank you!

  • Janet A

    August 7th, 2013 at 2:40 AM

    As a journal coach, I see this is an excellent tool for future #journal prompting. I will also use this at work as a self-reflective component to see what others see. A wonderful resource for change management. Thank you for posting the article.

  • Stuart Kaplowitz

    August 7th, 2013 at 6:21 PM

    Thank you Janet. I am a big fan of journaling

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