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by Maddie Lukens, MA

Automatic thoughts are thoughts that occur immediately in response to something we experience. Sometimes automatic thoughts happen out of our conscious awareness, other times an automatic thought is that small voice in your head saying: “you’re not good enough” or “man, you really screwed that up.”

We’re going to look at characteristics of automatic thoughts, give a few examples, and then learn about what we can do with these types of thoughts.

Some characteristics of automatic thoughts:

  • Usually negative.
  • Often recurring.
  • Sometimes in the “extremes” (i.e. the words “never” and “always” and “every time”).
  • Typically pop into our minds after an experience: an argument, unmet expectations, tense discussion with a loved one, after we make a mistake, etc.


You just completed a project at work and had a final presentation in front of some colleagues. You enjoy your job, but the meetings you attend as a team member leave you feeling intimidated at times. You feel nervous before you present and end up stumbling over your words, mid-presentation; you feel the heat rise up your neck as you try to hide your embarrassment. At the end of your presentation, you breathe a sigh of relief and the first thought you hear in your mind is: “I’m never doing that again, I did terrible!”

Let’s identify some of the characteristics of this automatic thought: “I’m never doing that again, I did terrible!”

  • Is it negative? (yes)
  • Is it recurring? (depends on how often you might present)
  • Did the thought land in an “extreme?” (yes – never)
  • Did the thought occur in response to a mistake? (yes)

Automatic thoughts are something we all experience, even counselors! BUT we don’t have to become victims to the way our minds work – we can actually change the thoughts that go through our head and help prevent ourselves from feeling discouraged or defeated after an experience.

Here are a few tips and questions to ask yourself when you notice an automatic thought pop into your mind:

  • Increase your awareness. You can ask yourself: “Do I often have thoughts like this?” If so, maybe begin a thought catalog – write down the automatic thoughts you have and the experience you had prior to the thought. You might notice a trend towards negative thinking, or an area of your mental health that needs attention.
  • Is the thought that came into my head actually true? Most often, the automatic thoughts we experience are only partially true or not true at all. Using our example above, try talking yourself through the scenario this way: “Did I make a mistake because I felt nervous? Yes. Am I a total failure and terrible at presenting? No. I am human, I make mistakes, sometimes my nerves get to me, but now that I know I might stumble over my words, I will make sure to take a moment to pause during my next presentation and take a deep breath if I need to.”
  • Challenge the thought. Challenging a thought usually includes asking questions about the thought you had: “Is this thought actually true?” (i.e. Did I do terribly on the whole presentation?” “Am I actually terrible at presenting, or did I just feel more tired today?”) Asking ourselves questions like the ones listed above help to “prove” to yourself that the automatic thought might not be an accurate portrayal of what you experienced.

Constant, negative automatic thoughts can lead to a person feeling anxious, depressed, and worthless. That is why it is important to learn not only how to challenge automatic thoughts, but to also learn how to rewire your brain so you aren’t finding yourself stuck in a negative mindset, or thinking negative things about yourself because you made a mistake.

Automatic thoughts can change how we view ourselves and we aren’t even aware of it! It is important to develop healthy coping skills and positive affirmations towards oneself when learning to manage automatic thoughts.

Anxiety Treatment in Pennsylvania

As always, all of our counselors at Lime Tree Counseling are here for you. We offer online counseling throughout the entire state of Pennsylvania. If you need more support in managing automatic thoughts, or need help working through anxiety, trauma, or grief, don’t hesitate to contact us today!