Our Thoughts Aren’t Always True

As we move through daily life, we all have a steady stream of thoughts going through our minds. Thoughts that are often held within, only for us to know. A majority of these thoughts happen very quickly, as we evaluate the significance of events all around and within us. They can happen so quickly that sometimes we may not be fully aware that they’re even occurring. Like a steady humming in the background. In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), these types of thoughts are called automatic thoughts.

We all have automatic thoughts. However, when someone is struggling with depression or anxiety, for example, there can be themes to automatic thoughts. In the case of depression, automatic thoughts commonly center around feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, or failure. In the case of anxiety, automatic thoughts commonly center around themes of fear of harm or danger, uncontrollability, or beliefs that we can’t cope.

Automatic thoughts with these types of themes can contribute to emotional distress. For example, a steady stream of thoughts that are saying things like “I messed up again… I’ll never be good enough… this always happens to me” could understandably contribute to sadness or despair. In another example, a stream of thoughts saying things like “I can’t manage all of this… how will I ever get this done” could understandably contribute to nervousness or dread.

It’s important to note that even though our thoughts can have a lot to say, it doesn’t mean what they’re saying is true. Our thoughts may be completely true, completely untrue, or somewhere in the middle. With mindful awareness, we can take note of our automatic thoughts and become curious about them. Are these thoughts helpful? What themes do I notice? Do I see room for change?

One sign that can let us know that our automatic thoughts may be impacting us is if we notice sudden changes to emotion or engagement with an unhealthy behavior. For example, if we suddenly feel anxiety, we can reflect on what our thoughts were saying prior to that shift. Or, if we find ourselves mindlessly eating after dinner, we could consider what thoughts preceded that behavior. Changes to our emotions and behaviors can let us know that related thoughts may be worthy of greater recognition and understanding.

If We notice room for change, these types of cognitive-behavioral strategies can help us work with automatic thoughts:

Make a Thought Record

We can write our automatic thoughts down using a thought record. Writing our thoughts down can help us recognize our thoughts, create space, and more objectively consider the thought. Sometimes automatic thoughts happen so quickly and in such great volume, it is easy to become swept away by them and the emotions that they may elicit. Thought records can help us slow down that process and look more closely at the language of our thoughts.

How to Create a Thought Record:

  • Draw three columns on a piece of paper and label the columns: Events, Automatic Thoughts, and Emotions.

  • Throughout the day, record internal and external events that trigger automatic thoughts

  • Include emotions that arise from the thoughts

  • Automatic thoughts can be positive, helpful, neutral, or unhelpful – all types of thoughts can be recorded!

Here is an example: In conversation with your boss, you have the thought “he definitely thinks I do not know what I am talking about.” In response to this event (talking to your boss), this automatic thought arises (that may or may not be true), and causes you to feel unqualified and low.

Writing a sequence like this down can sometimes be enough to prompt us to reconsider the validity of our thoughts. For example, do we know it to be true that your boss definitely thinks you don’t know what you’re talking about? No. Because we can’t read the minds of other people. It could be true, completely untrue, or somewhere in the middle.

Brainstrom Alternatives

Generating alternatives to unhelpful automatic thoughts can be a useful next step. After noticing unhelpful thoughts, we can try to replace it with a rational alternative.

The aim of generating alternatives is not to make every thought a positive thought. The aim is to work toward balanced, realistic thoughts. For example, an alternative to “I never do a good job” could be “sometimes I mess up, like everyone else.” We aren’t trying to gloss over the reality that mistakes happen, but we are trying to find greater balance by recognizing that it is highly unlikely that never in this person’s whole life have they ever done a good job.

These strategies can help generate thought alternatives:

1. Think about your best self. Visualize a time in your life when you felt strong and capable – perhaps you were graduating from college, achieving a career milestone, or becoming a parent. What alternatives might that person see that could be hard to see right now because of depression or anxiety?

2. Imagine a trusted person in your life, such as a family member, friend, or teacher. What might they say? From a trusted outsider’s point of view, are there accurate alternatives to an unhelpful way of thinking?

Consider adding a fourth column to the thought record to include helpful thought alternatives. And one step further could be a fifth column that includes the emotions or behaviors elicited from the thought alternative. What changes might there be?

Closing Note

There are many different skills and strategies, from CBT and other theoretical orientations, that can help our minds and bodies feel more at ease. Developing new skills takes practice, so hang in there. Pairing skills with healthy lifestyle habits, like good sleep, daily movement, balanced nutrition, and positive social relationships can set the stage for optimized wellbeing.

Request A Consultation

Disclaimer: Please note that visiting this website does not constitute a doctor-client therapeutic relationship. The information and resources included or linked on this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to assess, diagnose, or treat any medical and/or mental health disease or condition. The information obtained from this site should not be considered a substitute for a thorough medical and/or mental health evaluation by an appropriately credentialed and licensed professional. We do not know the specifics of your situation or have the facts to provide this type of evaluation and recommend that you seek an appropriately credentialed and licensed professional to establish a doctor-client therapeutic relationship. This website also includes links to other websites for informational and reference purposes only. This website does not endorse, warrant or guarantee the products, services or information described or offered at these other websites.

You may also like

How to Ease Suffering

Pain is a normal part of life. We can all expect to experience pain throughout ...