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Negative Automatic Thoughts

How our thoughts can influence our mood?

Posted by Janice Marsh, 13 September 2021

Much of our thoughts occur automatically, which is a good thing, as we don’t generally have to work too hard to do daily or routine tasks like getting up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, getting to work etc. And, it can be a bad thing, because they are so habitual and automatic that we don’t usually pay much attention to them.

If you think back to the last time you got annoyed or anxious, can you remember what it was that you were thinking?

It takes practice to try and focus on what thoughts were going through your mind?

However, like most things, if you know what you are looking for, then it is easier to spot, and you are able to recognise your thought patterns more easily.

For example, you might have been responding to someone who had done something that you perceived of as unfair. A common enough example occurs whilst driving, and someone cuts in front of you. It might have triggered a response along the lines of;

…. Why does this always happen to me? How dare they, they should not have done that, people that drive red cars are useless drivers. This just tops my day, it’s been awful and now this, I can’t even drive home in peace, what a waste of space I am…

Negative automatic thoughts (NATs), are a stream of thoughts that we can notice, if we pay attention to them. They are negatively framed interpretations of what we think is happening to us. And they usually have an impact on our mood and our feelings, that isn’t positive.

NATs can lead to self-doubt, depression, anxiety, anger, irritability and low mood. They are not that helpful, or useful and yet we all have them. The difference between whether we accept them and believe them, or ignore or challenge them or accept them, will have an influence on how mentally healthy and happy our lives will be.

So how can you identify your negative automatic thoughts?

There are some common characteristics;

1.They are always negative

“I just missed that turn on the motorway, therefore I am useless, I will never get there on time, I am always messing up, I never do anything right, they will think I am an idiot. She didn’t call me back. I’m not worth bothering about. No-one likes me anyway. And so on.

2. They make you feel bad about yourself

“I’m such a failure, I am useless, I never do anything right, no-one likes me, I’m too fat, too old, too unfit etc”. And they make you feel bad about your life in general. “My life is useless, hopeless”

3. They are self-sabotaging

And tend to stop you helping yourself… ‘If I do that, I am bound to fail, so what’s the point?’ they invite apathy and create their own self-fulfilling beliefs. If I believe I am going to fail, the chances are I probably will.

4. They are uninvited

Like a rude gate crasher who thinks you need to be told what a loser you are, and they can be harshly critical. ‘You’ll never amount to anything’ ‘You are so selfish’ ‘You are a show off’ ‘ You are constantly moaning, no wonder you have no friends’

5. They are believable

It seems to be more plausible to think negatively of yourself than positively. To tell yourself that ‘You are really not that great, you’re just not that clever’ ‘You are gullible, people see you coming, they always take advantage of you, you have poor judge of character’ or ‘You are always making mistakes, therefore you are the clumsiest most useless impractical person”– seems acceptable and fair 

enough to accept these admonishments as truths.

Believing that you are not good enough… seems to be easier to believe than you are good enough.

6. They are biased

And, although they seem to be acceptable, they are likely to be distorted or wrong. Just because you didn’t do well at one thing, doesn’t mean that you never do well at anything. They may be reinforced by how you feel, or what has happened to you i.e. after a specific event, say just being made redundant and thinking you will never get another job; but ignore many other facts, for example that you have managed to get jobs in the past, and you now have 15 years’ experiences in a particular field.

The following styles of negative thinking have been recognised as the most common of the NATs – Do you recognise any of them?

All or nothing/ black or white thinking

•If I don’t do it perfectly, then I’m rubbish

•If I am not a perfect mother/father/daughter/son – then I’m useless

•If I don’t do well at every area of my job, I am hopeless

•If I don’t get on with everyone, no one likes me

•If my partner is annoyed with me, they must hate me

•If I don’t win the game, I must be a loser

Over-controlling and perfectionism

•Unless I do everything perfectly life is intolerable

•If my house is not perfectly clean, it is a pigsty

•If I don’t take care over my appearance, then I am a mess and I can’t go out

•If I allow paperwork to pile up, I will be out of control

Magical thinking or fortune telling

•My thoughts are so powerful, just by thinking it, something bad will happen

•I know exactly what she is thinking….

•I predict that if I say something about this to her, she will find me unacceptable

•If I don’t please everyone, they will hate me/ be disappointed in me


•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 my act together soon, I never will

•If i don’t get this job, I will never get another one, and will be on the scrapheap

•If I get sick, I will never recover, and never be able to be happy again

•If I split up with my partner, I will never meet anyone again, and will be alone

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

•Everyone is out to rip you off

•I will never get out of this mess

•Bad things are always happening to me, or someone I care about

Personalisation, over responsibility

•You assume responsibility for bad things, even though you probably were not responsible

•A mother feels responsible for her daughters’ poor grades at school and concludes ‘I am a lousy mother’

•You complete a tender at work and your company is not awarded the work – ‘I failed, I don’t deserve the trust and respect people give me’

So, how do you catch your own NATs?

Most of the time, they come into your head and leave quickly, as if there has been a break and enter, you are left with the mess of the feelings, but didn’t really catch the thoughts as they occurred.

So, use your feelings as a cue, and whenever you are feeling upset, try and notice what exactly you are feeling, put it into words, ‘ I am anxious’ ‘I am sad’ and ask yourself the question, ‘What did I just think then?’

It might also take the form of a picture, or a visual image of a face, or a scene. Ask yourself what did you see?

If you seem upset by something that has just happened, an event, try and look for what it was you were telling yourself about the situation? How did I view this? What did it mean to me?

Counting NATs

Being aware of your NATs is critical in helping you to challenge them. One way might be to count how many times you have NATs in any one day.

Writing down your NATs

The best way to become more aware is by writing them down and look out for the ones that are more unique to you.

By being your own NAT scientist, it can help take the sting out of them, and this process can even help you to look at them differently.


Burns, D.D. (1980). David D., M.D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper.

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