In this post I will be discussing some helpful hints for completing thought records. Thought records are a tool commonly used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is a therapy that focuses on helping people change the way they think – the theory is that the way we think and interpret life events impacts our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, which can in turn cause our mental health to be impacted. CBT is highly researched and is considered to be an effective treatment for many mental health issues, including but not limited to: depression, anxiety, self esteem and phobias.
Throughout the day we are constantly having thoughts that are evaluating the different situations that we find ourselves in – this is what CBT terms an “automatic thought”. Automatic thoughts aren’t inherently bad – we can have positive or neutral automatic thoughts. However a thought record is an intervention designed to help us notice, and evaluate our negative thoughts, and replace the negative thought with a more balanced thought. The word balanced is important – the goal of CBT is not to try to force people to see everything in a positive light – quite frankly that wouldn’t be healthy either! The goal is to shift from seeing a situation through a negative filter, to seeing the situation clearly with no negative biases. Reflecting on and evaluating our negative thoughts helps make us more aware of the cognitive distortions we are experiencing, helps us shift the way we think and in turn the way we experience certain situations.
Thought Record Walk Through
If you would like to see a thought record to follow along in the walk-through you can check one out here.
- Situation/Trigger – This is the situation that you find yourself in when a particular negative emotion, such as depression or anxiety, occurs. What happened? Who? What? Where? When? How did it happen? It is important to make sure the description of the situation is judgement free. For example, if you were at a party and someone didn’t respond to what you said, it is important to say “John didn’t respond when I asked how he was doing” as opposed to “John ignored me when I asked how he was doing”.
- Emotions/Feelings – This is pretty self explanatory. What were you feeling when the situation occurred? Note that it is important to keep it to words that describe emotions, not thoughts. It may be tempting to say “I felt stupid” but that is a thought, not a feeling. List all the feelings you experienced – there is often more than one. Evaluate each one out of 100, with 0 being totally neutral and 100 being the highest intensity of that emotion that you have experienced. It is not an exact science, so just go with your best guess. If you struggle with naming your emotions don’t be hard on yourself – many people find connecting with and naming their emotions really challenging. Some find that a chart like this can help.
- Automatic Thoughts/Images: This is where you list the thoughts that came up in response to the situation that occurred. Some helpful questions are: What thoughts were running through your mind? What was upsetting about the situation? What beliefs came up? What did the thoughts say about me or the situation? What did I feel was the worst thing that could happen? When working with clients I often find that by the time they work through the situation and the emotions they have ready access to the automatic thoughts. This is the column where you can let the judgement flow – examples might be “I’m stupid” “She hates me” “I’m awkward” “No one wants to be my friend” etc. Let yourself write out ALL the automatic thoughts that come up for you. When you are done rate each one from 0-100 with how much you believe that particular thought. The thought with the highest rating is usually considered the “Hot Thought”. Circle that thought, that is where the rest of the thought record will be focused (although you can certainly do other thought records if you want to evaluate any of the other thoughts).
- Evidence that supports the hot thought: This is where you look at the FACTS. All of your judgement was released when you were writing out your automatic thoughts. In this column it is important to stick to actual facts about whether the hot thought has any truth to it. Sometimes it helps if you picture yourself as an outside observer. It is important to keep how you have felt in the past out of the evidence – for example “I don’t think I’ve done well on past presentations” would not be good evidence, however “I received some feedback that I spoke too softly” would be. Try to keep the evidence as specific and detailed as possible.
- Evidence that goes against the hot thought: Again we are dealing in FACTS. Some helpful questions might be: Is it possible this is an opinion? What have others said about the situation? Again, imagine yourself as an outside observer: What might they say about the situation? Try to keep the evidence specific and detailed. An example might be “I got some really positive feedback on my last presentation as well” “My professor said that I explained my ideas very clearly” “I received an A”.
- Alternative or Balanced Thought: This is where you look at the evidence and come up with a new thought that reflects the facts of the situation. I always encourage clients to try and integrate the evidence for and against the hot thought. It is important that the new balanced/alternative thought feels true to you! If you are struggling, try and imagine yourself once again as the outside observer. What would that outside observer think after looking at all the evidence? Or you can try and imagine what someone you respect might say – for example, your friend, sibling, or partner? What advice would you give to a friend in a similar situation?
- Outcome: look back to your emotions column and re-rate your original emotions. Did the thought record help? The goal is not necessarily to get the emotion down to a zero. If your original rating was 80 and it got down to 40 that is still a win! Whatever the outcome, be sure to celebrate working through the entire thought record. Reflecting on situations that bring up negative emotions is not easy, and you deserve to feel proud of your accomplishment.
Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (2016). Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Wright, J. H., Basco, M. R., & Thase, M. E. (2006). Learning cognitive-behavior therapy: An illustrated guide. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc..
Clare Pentelow, MSW, RSW is a counsellor at Kitchener Therapy. Clare has completed certificate courses in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the University of Toronto and Wildfred Laurier.