Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) says that what we think and do affects the way we feel. Thought records are an essential tool for monitoring, understanding, and changing how we think.
Why do I need to record my thoughts?
The key message of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is that the way we think (our cognitions) and what we do (our behavior) affects the ways we feel. It follows that if we want to change the way we feel then we will need to make changes to the way we think and act.
Everybody has thousands of thoughts per day. Some are helpful and uplifting (e.g. “I’m glad I did that”, “I really like being here”), and some are more downbeat (e.g. “I’ll never be able to do this”, “I’m a waste of space”). More importantly, some are accurate (e.g. “I really messed up that time”) and others are untrue (e.g. “I’m completely useless”).
Key things that you need to know about your thoughts are:
- We all have quick and automatic thoughts that just ‘pop’ into our minds
- These automatic thoughts are often based on assumptions, not facts
- Automatic thoughts are very believable, but they can be inaccurate
Thought records are an important part of cognitive behavioral treatment for many problems. They are useful because:
- They make our negative automatic thoughts visible to us
- They help us to identify any problems with our thinking
- They can help us to make changes to our thinking
How do I record my thoughts?
To ‘catch’ your automatic thoughts you need to start paying attention to what is going through your mind: particularly at times when you notice a change in how you are feeling. The most important question that you can ask yourself is:
“what was going through my mind just then?”
Some people notice that they have a lot of verbal thoughts – these thoughts can be like a little sentence of words in your mind (e.g. “I’m going to mess this up!”). Other people notice that their thoughts are in the form of images (e.g. have a mental image of my face going red and embarrassing myself). Whatever it is that goes through your mind the important thing is to write it down as soon as possible after you notice it. Writing it down quickly means that you are less likely to forget or dismiss the thought – many people find it very powerful to see their thoughts written down.
Psychologists use a tool called a thought record to help their clients to catch their thoughts. Psychology Tools have many different types of thought record that have been adapted for specific purposes, but the essential parts of a thought record are spaces to record information about:
- The situation the thought happened in
- The thought (or image)
- How you felt (emotions and body sensations)
When to complete a thought record
The best time to complete a thought record is shortly after you notice a change in how you are feeling. A sudden shift in your emotions is a sign that you have had a thought about something. Writing it down quickly ensures that the incident is still fresh in your mind and makes it more likely that you will be able to recall the important details. Don’t worry if you can’t complete a thought record straight away – but when you complete it later take your time to imagine the incident clearly in your mind as this will help you to recall the details you need.
The first step in completing a thought record is to note down some information about the situation or context in which you noticed this change in emotion. This will help you (and your therapist) to understand more about this event, and about what your particular triggers are.
- Make a note of the date & time
- Record where you were
- Note who you were with
- Summarize what was happening just before you noticed a change in how you were feeling
The next step is to describe your emotions and body sensations. What was the shift in emotion that prompted you to complete a thought record?
- Emotions can generally be described using one word (e.g. Angry, Sad, Excited)
- Rate the strength of the emotion on a scale of 0-100% (if you recorded more than one emotion give a separate rating for each)
- Record what you felt in your body (e.g. “I felt butterflies in my stomach”)
Finally you need to record the thoughts (and images) that you had at the time – particularly those which came just before the change in how you were feeling. Helpful questions to ask yourself include:
- What was going through my mind in that moment?
- What was I saying to myself?
- Did I have an image/picture/memory in my mind? (If you did: what did it mean? What does it say about you?)
- What implications did that situation have for me or my future?
How do I challenge my thoughts?
Remember, the goal of CBT is not to ‘think happy thoughts’ but is instead to think accurately. Our thinking can become biased, but it is within our power to change the way we think. Identifying thoughts is the first step in managing our minds. Once we can reliably catch our automatic thoughts we can examine them to see how accurate they are and how fair we are being with ourselves.
One traditional ‘CBT way’ of checking whether a thought is accurate is to examine the evidence for and against the thought. You can think of the process as being a bit like a court case: our thought is in the ‘dock’, the defence are arguing that it is true, and the prosecution are arguing that it is false. Your job is to be the defence, prosecution, and judge!
Examining the evidence for and against a thought
Follow the steps below to examine the evidence for and against a thought.
Identify the thought you want to work on and write it down. Only work on one thought at a time. (If you had an image rather than a verbal thought ask yourself “what does that say about me?” and use that answer as your thought).
Give the thought an initial belief rating. How strongly do you believe in the truthfulness of that thought right now? (0% = not at all, 100% = completely).
Next, make a list of all the reasons why that thought might be true. Some of these reasons might be better than other, but don’t censor anything – just write them all down. Keep asking yourself “What is the evidence that makes me think this thought is true?”
Now make a list of all the reasons why this thought might not be 100% true all of the time. You might find it helpful to ask yourself:
- If a friend thought this about themselves, what would I say to them?
- When was the last occasion that I had a thought like this that wasn’t true?
- What facts or evidence make me suspect that this isn’t completely true?
- Have there ever been any times when this wasn’t true?
- If I looked back on this thought in 20 years what would I say to myself?
Now read the original thought, all of the reasons why it might be true, and all of the reasons why it might not be true. Do this out loud if you can.
Say to yourself “Given all of the evidence, is there a better way of summing up this situation?”
- Is there a more helpful way of thinking about myself or this situation?
- Have I been judging myself harshly? Is there a fairer, more balanced way of summing this up?
- Is there a way of thinking about this now that is more likely to help me achieve my goals?
Write down your new thought
Rate how strongly you believe in the new thought and your old thought right now (0-100%). What do you notice?