Automatic Thoughts: The Hidden Drivers of Anxiety in CBT

Our minds are constantly chattering away, generating thoughts both positive and negative. However, in individuals struggling with anxiety, a specific type of thought called “automatic thoughts” can play a significant role in exacerbating their symptoms.

What are Automatic Thoughts?

Automatic thoughts are spontaneous, often negative thoughts that arise in response to a trigger. They are fleeting and usually occur outside our conscious awareness, meaning we don’t consciously choose to think them. These thoughts are often biased and distorted, leading to inaccurate interpretations of situations and fueling anxiety.

How do Automatic Thoughts Contribute to Anxiety?

Imagine a tangled mess of wires. This tangled mess represents distorted automatic thoughts. These thoughts are jumbled and difficult to untangle, making it hard to see things clearly. Just like the tangled wires can cause electrical problems, distorted automatic thoughts can disrupt our emotional well-being and contribute to anxiety.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Trigger: You experience a situation, such as giving a presentation or receiving criticism.
  2. Automatic Thought: A negative thought pops into your head, such as “Everyone is judging me” or “I’m going to mess this up.”
  3. Emotional Response: The automatic thought triggers an emotional response, such as anxiety, fear, or shame.
  4. Physical Response: The emotional response leads to physical symptoms of anxiety, such as increased heart rate, sweating, or shortness of breath.
  5. Behavioral Response: You may avoid the situation or engage in behaviors that temporarily alleviate the anxiety, but ultimately reinforce the negative thought pattern.
Examples of Automatic Thoughts:
  • All-or-nothing thinking: “If I don’t get a perfect score, I’m a failure.”
  • Overgeneralization: “Everyone thinks I’m stupid.”
  • Mental filtering: Focusing only on the negative aspects of a situation and ignoring the positive ones.
  • Catastrophizing: Assuming the worst possible outcome will happen.
  • Personalization: Taking things personally that are not directed at you.
Identifying and Challenging Automatic Thoughts in CBT

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy, used by many anxiety therapists, that focuses on identifying and challenging automatic thoughts. This process involves:

  • Becoming aware of your automatic thoughts: Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions when you feel anxious. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking right now?”. Practice mindfulness.
  • Evaluating the evidence for and against your automatic thoughts: Are your thoughts realistic? Are there other ways to interpret the situation?
  • Developing alternative, balanced thoughts: Replace your negative automatic thoughts with more realistic and helpful ones. Anxiety hierarchies may also help with this process.
Automatic thoughts and Cognitive Distortions

It’s important to understand how automatic thoughts connect with something called cognitive distortions, especially if you deal with anxiety. Cognitive distortions are ways of thinking that aren’t really true, but they make us see things in a negative way. For example, you might think everything is either totally good or bad, or that a small mistake is a huge disaster.

These distorted ways of thinking can make your automatic thoughts more negative. If you usually think the worst will happen (that’s a distortion), then you might automatically think you’ll fail a test (an automatic thought) even if you’re well-prepared. This link between automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions can create a loop that keeps making your anxiety worse. Breaking this loop is a big step in dealing with anxiety better.

Benefits of Challenging Automatic Thoughts:

By identifying and challenging automatic thoughts, you can:

  • Reduce anxiety symptoms
  • Improve mood
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Improve relationships
  • Develop more coping skills


Automatic thoughts play a significant role in anxiety. By identifying and challenging these thoughts, you can break free from their negative influence and improve your mental well-being. If you struggle with automatic thoughts and anxiety, consider seeking professional help from a therapist trained in CBT, like Longmont therapist David Ejchorszt.

Remember: Identifying and changing automatic thoughts takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and celebrate your progress along the way.