Negative automatic thoughts: what they are and how they appear


For better or for worse, most of what happens in our minds is beyond the control of our will, and even happens without us noticing.

This implies advantages such as allowing us to direct our attention to really complex mental tasks that require deliberate effort, such as making a decision about where to go or what product to buy. However, it also has some downsides. For example, we cannot totally control what it is that will appear in our consciousness.

In this article we will talk about a very annoying phenomenon that is related to the latter. It's all about negative automatic thoughts .

What are negative automatic thoughts?

As its name indicates, negative automatic thoughts are a set of mental contents (verbally articulated ideas, imagined images, etc.) that emerge in consciousness in a disruptive way, regardless of what the person wants to think about, and that they generate an emotional disturbance .

Thus, it is a psychological phenomenon that causes discomfort and that interrupts the dynamics of thought of the person, since in most of the time, the emotional impact of these negative automatic thoughts is greater than what was thought before appear in consciousness.

While the feeling of experiencing one of these automatic thoughts is unpleasant, the degree to which we are disturbed can vary greatly; In some cases, their emotional load and their frequency are not so important as to suffer significantly, but in certain cases they can wear down the quality of life of people, and can even constitute one of the symptoms of a psychological disorder.


The causes of negative automatic thoughts are very varied, and differ depending on the person and the context in which they live. However, there are a number of psychological factors that increase the chances of making these thoughts appear in our day to day, and that in fact they overlap each other with relative frequency. They are as follows.

1. Anxiety

It is not surprising that negative automatic thoughts appear in most people with anxiety problems. These produce a "vicious circle" type effect : as the person is already alert and sensitive to possible signs that something is going wrong, they are more likely to attract disturbing images, pessimistic ideas, etc. into their consciousness.

2. Depressed mood

Depression and low mood in general introduce a pessimistic bias in people , thus creating more "mental pathways" to unpleasant ideas or memories.

3. Problems in social relationships

Phenomena such as social phobia or the propensity to argue with someone close to them can give way to negative automatic thoughts frequently, since when thinking about those people with whom unpleasant experiences have occurred, those painful emotions become what the most attention is focused. Furthermore, each new encounter with these people can "reinforce" that association , giving way to unpleasant interactions in which we feel uncomfortable.

4. Psychological grief

The loss of something to which we felt emotionally attached, as well as the loss of loved ones, is a common source of negative automatic thoughts. For example, while this process lasts, it is normal to suddenly remember the last moments of that person's life, and at the same time feel the sadness of that situation mixed with the longing for the loss. Fortunately, in most cases the psychological grief resolves itself in only a matter of a few months.

5. Personality that tends to neuroticism

People who obtain high scores in the personality element "Neuroticism" are more exposed to experiencing painful or unpleasant emotional reactions to day-to-day events , and are also more likely to maintain emotional sequelae after having gone through psychologically demanding experiences.

6. Feeling of guilt

Having performed an action that we are not proud of is also one of the frequent causes of negative automatic thoughts. It is a kind of memory that clashes with the concept of the "ideal I" , what we would like to be, and therefore produces a discomfort that is expressed from time to time, drawing our focus of attention to that part of memory.

What to do?

These are some tips to deal with these types of thoughts, although the most effective measure that can be taken in these cases is to go to psychotherapy.

1. Don't try to block those thoughts

Pretending to leave these negative automatic thoughts completely out of consciousness is counterproductive, because it gives them more power, by predisposing us to pay attention to them .

2. Practice attentional focus management

  1. The key is to accept the existence of these thoughts, but learn not to give them all the limelight. The ideal is to learn to direct our attention to other types of stimuli, assuming that it is natural to feel a certain degree of discomfort. Mindfulness exercises often help .

3. Maintain healthy habits

When our body is weakened or in poor condition, we are much more likely to suffer from anxiety and anguish in all its forms. Get enough sleep, and eat a balanced diet.

4. Practice exercise

Practicing moderate exercise on a regular basis helps to "disconnect" from those experiences or ideas that worry us excessively , which allows us to face those problems in a constructive way.

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