Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Automatic Negative Thinking And Depression

By  | 

Arguing about the cause of depression is a little bit like arguing about what came first between the chicken and the egg. On one hand you have psychologists who believe that changes in mood cause negative thoughts about the self, world, and future while on the other hand you have psychologists who believe that negative thoughts about the self, world, and future cause changes in mood.

CBT therapists rally around the second way of viewing depression. It’s their belief that negative thoughts directly precede negative emotions. But so little time elapses between the activating events, the thoughts, and the resulting emotional states that no attention is paid to the thoughts themselves, it’s as if these thoughts didn’t even occur. This is what is meant by negative automatic thinking. It’s fast and automatic, largely outside of the conscious awareness of the person doing the thinking. But this doesn’t mean the thoughts aren’t there. They are, and they exert a profound influence on emotional states.

Regardless of whether you believe that thoughts come first or that emotions come first, you’ll probably agree that before long a feedback loop will be created, a vicious cycle where negative thoughts cause negative emotions which cause more negative thoughts which cause more negative emotions, or conversely that negative emotions cause negative thoughts which cause more negative emotions which cause more negative thoughts.

That cycle has got to be broken up somehow. Focusing on noticing and changing your negative automatic thinking seems to us to be the best way to do it since it’s easier to name your thoughts than it is to name your emotions and in general you have more control over your thoughts than you do over your emotions. At least in principle you are the active creator of your thoughts and the passive recipient of your emotions. By becoming more aware of the negative automatic thoughts that directly precede your negative emotional states you can start to actively challenge the validity of some of these negative thoughts. They fall into general categories called¬† faulty thinking patterns, about which we have written a great deal.

Greetings I'm Michael, the owner of Evolution Counseling and the author of all the articles on this site. I got my master's degree from Seattle University in community mental heath counseling and have committed myself to advancing my knowledge of psychology and to evolving my own philosophical system ever since. In addition to the content on this site I offer online coaching using Skype. If you'd like to learn more about it click on the online coaching tab or if you think you'd like to set up a session send me an email at

You must be logged in to post a comment Login