I 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.
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