Skip to main content

Evaluating Unhelpful Automatic Thoughts

The Evaluating Unhelpful Automatic Thoughts guide is written for clients who struggle with negative automatic thoughts. It provides a comprehensive introduction to what thoughts are, and how they can be linked to feelings and behavior. It also teaches fundamental CBT skills, including how to identify and evaluate automatic thoughts.

Download or send

Choose your language

Guide (PDF)

A psychoeducational guide. Typically containing elements of skills development.


Languages this resource is available in

  • English (GB)
  • English (US)
  • Spanish (International)

Problems this resource might be used to address

Techniques associated with this resource

Mechanisms associated with this resource

Introduction & Theoretical Background

Thinking allows people to  plan, solve problems, create, or imagine, but it can cause problems when it leads to excessive worry, rumination, or self-criticism. Clients may often feel distressed or overwhelmed by their thoughts, and problems like anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, paranoia, and even reactions to physical pain can be the result of particular ways of thinking. 

People often assume that the way they think is accurate, but in reality, thoughts are not facts. Thinking isn’t always slow or deliberate. In fact, it mostly consists of quick, automatic thoughts, which are called negative automatic thoughts (or ‘NATs’) when they cause distress. These thoughts may not be accurate, and are simply ‘best guesses’ or ‘opinions’ about the meaning of events. In this way, biases (typically called unhelpful thinking styles or cognitive distortions) can influence how people think. Biases are very common (and minor biases aren’t a problem) but more substantially biased thinking can cause significant difficulties. 

While it may not be possible to prevent automatic thoughts, clients don’t have to accept them at face value, and can learn to interpret events differently. One of the best ways for them to do this is by learning to evaluate their thinking. 

This guide is written for clients who are struggling with negative automatic thoughts. As well as providing a comprehensive introduction to the link between thoughts, feelings, and behavior, it teaches fundamental CBT skills including:

  • How to catch automatic thoughts.
  • Spotting unhelpful thinking styles.
  • Evaluating the evidence for and against automatic thoughts.

Therapist Guidance

This is a Psychology Tools guide. Suggested uses include:
  • Client handout – use as a psychoeducation and skills-development resource
  • Discussion point – use to provoke a discussion and explore client beliefs
  • Therapist learning tool – improve your familiarity with a psychological construct
  • Teaching resource – use as a learning tool during training

References And Further Reading

  • Beck, A. T. (Ed.). (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. Guilford press.
  • Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. International Universities Press.
  • Beck, A. T. (1963). Thinking and depression: I. Idiosyncratic content and cognitive distortions. Archives of General Psychiatry, 9(4), 324-333.
  • Burns, M. D. (1980). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. NY: Signet Books.
  • Clark, D. A., & Beck, A. T. (1989). Cognitive theory and therapy of anxiety and depression. In P. C. Kendall & D. Watson (Eds.), Anxiety and depression: Distinctive and overlapping features (pp. 379–411). San Diego: Academic Press.
  • Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: an introduction to logotherapy. New York: Washington Square Press.
  • Gilbert, P. (1998). The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 71(4), 447-463.
  • Kahneman, D., & Egan, P. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.