Automatic Negative Thoughts (A Comprehensive Guide)

Automatic negative thoughts are known as the words, images or any kind of mental activity that comes into your mind at once as a response to some situation or trigger.

At first these thoughts might seem unimportant or mundane but in reality they can be quite impactful.

These types of automatic thoughts can not only affect one’s health but can also have an affect on the overall quality of one’s life.

This article will explain in detail regarding automatic thinking, what it is and how it affects one’s social and normal life, how one can overcome it and break the cycle of negativity.

What are Automatic negative thoughts ?

Automatic thinking are basically the thoughts that are based on the belief of the people and which they hold deep in their hearts about themselves and about the environment or world around them (Soflau & David, 2017).

Automatic negative thoughts  thoughts are also known as “non-volitional, stream-of-consciousness cognitions, surface-level” which “can appear any time in the form of inferences, situation-specific evaluations or descriptions” (Soflau & David, 2017).

Automatic negative thoughts  thoughts are reflexive reactions of one’s mind based on what they believe about themselves and the world around them, these thoughts as the name suggests, cannot be controlled by one’s mind.

However, people can control them indirectly by holding onto some other beliefs and challenging the ones that are leading to them. 

Relevant research into the topic started way back in 1979, with the first research into the negative thoughts which occurs automatically because of depression by Aaron Beck  (Beck et al., 1979).

Before long, other researchers also started to research not only on the negative thoughts but also positive thoughts related to automatic thinking, in particular researches related to the relationship in between positive and Automatic negative thoughts were being carried out (Ingram & Wisnicki, 1988).

Different studies have also indicated that there are different consequences when one is disposed towards automatic negative thoughts  as compared with the positive automatic thoughts.

For example, people suffering from both HIV/AIDS and depressions, can have automatic negative thoughts that are related to symptoms of depression and vice versa (Riley et al., 2017).

Automatic Negative thoughts can lead an athlete to be burnout and feel fatigue (Chang et al., 2017).

In a research carried out in university students, the samples with the Automatic Negative Thoughts it was seen that it causes more mental health symptoms and can lead to a decrease in levels of self-esteem. (Hicdurmaz et al., 2017).

Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Triad

According to the renowned psychiatrist Aaron Beck and his colleagues:

“[the] cognitive triad basically is made up of three cognitive patterns that make the patient regard his future, his present and all of his life experiences in an idiosyncratic manner” (1979).

According to this view of Beck’s cognitive triad, a person who is depressed will automatically not only view themself in a negative light but also their life experiences and their future in a dim light of negativity.

According to the given model, “the main symptoms and signs given for depression syndrome” are based on the “ consequences that can activate the chain on negative cognitive patterns” (Beck et al., 1979).

According to the research given by Beck, this happens because the person who is depressed “forms a tendency to see himself, his future and the world around him in a negative way automatically and becomes biased towards the interpretation of his life experiences, taking into account the negative expectancies which can be resulted into a probable success of anything he takes and becomes more self-criticised” (Beck et al., 1979).

Examples of Positive and Negative Automatic Thoughts

So, the main purpose is to know how these automatic thoughts whether they are positive or negative present themselves ?

As most of the work done in automatic thinking was related to negative thoughts we will start with automatic negative thoughts also.

According the questionnaire developed by Philip Kendall and Steven Hollon in 1980 known as the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-30), most of the example of automatic negative thoughts  mostly include : 

“I feel like I’m up against the world.”“I’m no good.”“Why can’t I ever succeed?”“No one understands me.”“I’ve let people down.”“I don’t think I can go on.”“I wish I were a better person.”“I’m so weak.”“My life’s not going the way I want it to.”“I’m so disappointed in myself.”“Nothing feels good anymore.”“I can’t stand this anymore.”“I can’t get started.”“What’s wrong with me?”“I wish I were somewhere else.”“I can’t get things together.”“I hate myself.”“I’m worthless.”“Wish I could just disappear.”“What’s the matter with me?”“I’m a loser.”“My life is a mess.”“I’m a failure.”“I’ll never make it.”“I feel so helpless.”“Something has to change.”“There must be something wrong with me.”“My future is bleak.”“It’s just not worth it.”“I can’t finish anything.”

Another version of this questionnaire (ATQ-R) (Kendall et al., 1989), which is still used as the basic measure for automatic thinking research (Koseki et al., 2013), also lists a number of items for positive automatic thoughts some of the examples are listed as below : 

“I’m proud of myself.”“I feel fine.”“No matter what happens, I know I’ll make it.”“I can accomplish anything.”“I feel good.”
“I’m warm and comfortable.”“I feel confident I can do anything I set my mind to.”“I feel very happy.”“This is super!”“I’m luckier than most people.”

To measure the positive/negative thinking or affect a questionnaire is used, called the PANAS.

Types of automatic negative thoughts  

The most common types of negative automatic thinking or cognitive distortions recognized as the common sets of NATs are given as : 

All or nothing/ black or white thinking

  • If I cannot do the task perfectly, then I am not good.
  • If I am not perfect in my relationship as a father/mother/son/daughter – then I am still not good.
  • If I am not good in my job then I am rubbish

Overcontrol and perfectionism

  • If I cannot do everything in a perfect way, I am rubbish
  • If my house is dirty or is not clean perfectly, then it is a mess
  • If my appearance is not good and clean, then I cannot go out
  • If I don’t complete my paperwork in time then I will not be able to do it

Magical thinking or fortune telling

  • I am thinking too much about something, because of that something bad is gonna happen
  • I have a hunch what the other person is thinking about


  • If I don’t do well in my next exam, I am going to fail everything, get kicked out of university and be a failure for the rest of my life
  • If I don’t get myself together, I will never be able to
  • If I am unable to land this job, I might not be able to get any other

Pessimistic or negative bias

  • If something bad is going to happen, it is much more likely to happen to me
  • This proves what I suspected all along
  • You can’t trust anyone these days

Personalisation, over responsibility

  • Assuming responsibility for every bad thing that happens, whether you were responsible for it or not.

CBT Worksheets for Challenging Negative Self-Talk and Automatic Thoughts

There can be different practical ways to dispute and challenge negative automatic thinking, one of the ways is to use one of the following worksheets.

These worksheets are based on the main principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy which is commonly known as CBT.

Automatic Thoughts from Therapist Aid

This is one of the simplest worksheets present that offers little information related to automatic thinking and the consequences it bears.

This worksheet is mainly split into 3 parts defining each of the steps related to automated thinking : Trigger, Automatic Thought and New Thought.

The main aim of this worksheet is to help people understand the concept of automatic thinking and to help them fight against it or dispute it. 

Characteristics of Negative Automatic Thoughts

The Characteristics of Negative Automatic Thoughts worksheet by Psycho delights is a more deep dive in the area of negative automatic thoughts, what are the reasons behind them and how one can identify them easily and what can be done to dispute them.

This worksheet helps people to understand their automatic negative  thoughts better but does not help them in replacing them with positive automatic thoughts.

This is a nice worksheet if one wants to understand his own negative automatic thinking and think about his own ways to dispute them. 

Thought/Feeling Record Worksheet

This worksheet, unfortunately, is not in the form of a pdf but is more valuable than the previous ones.

One can print it out and fill it over working days.

This will help the users to focus on his specific negative thoughts and examine the triggers that result in those thoughts. 

A Take-Home Message

Negative automatic thinking is not only good for health but it can also result in poor mental health outcomes that may cause a serious cycle of negativity resulting in increase of negative thoughts and severe mental health problems.

While, it can be assumed that these thoughts are impossible to avoid but it is not impossible to counteract them with possible thoughts.

Through different CBT methods, people can train their mind and themselves to think more about positive thoughts than the negative ones. 

FAQ about negative automatic negative  thoughts

1. What are automatic negative thoughts CBT?

Negative automatic thoughts (NATs), are basically a stream of negative thoughts, as described by Beck, that come into our mind automatically with a little attention.

They are basically the negative interpretation of our mind and our perception of a specific situation.

These thoughts have a great negative impact on our feelings and mood.

2. How do I stop automatic negative thoughts?

One can stop thinking of these negative thoughts if you can stop thinking of the following nine types of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs):

“Always” thinking

Focusing on the negative

Fortune telling

Mind reading.

Thinking with your feelings

Guilt beating

3. Why do we have automatic negative thoughts?

Behind every “should” statement that we think automatically there is always a form of cognitive distortion behind it which is also because of common anxiety and depression known as automatic negative thoughts (ANTs).

For people with anxiety, ANTs make these themes the showrunner of your mind, turning thoughts into paralyzing panic attacks

4. What is an example of an automatic thought?

A few examples are: “I won’t be able to pass the exam.”

Here, the feeling is anxiety, and the automatic thought is a comment that is predicting what will happen in the future.

“I shouldn’t have eaten that cookie.”

Here, the main feeling is guilt, and the thought generated automatically from it is about the deed that was done in the past.

5. What happens in a negative cycle of thinking?

Negative thoughts are destructive and unhelpful.

They can lead to negative feelings and actions, and can put a lot of extra pressure on you.

The diagram on the next page gives some examples.

This cycle can result in making one feel worse and stop him from taking control and make him feel more timid towards things.