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David Burns’ “Daily Mood Log”
Step 3:  Automatic Thoughts


      The Daily Mood Log has five steps:

          On this page, we’ll focus on identifying and writing down the automatic thoughts connected to your emotional reaction to the event.  Sometimes they’re referred to as “Automatic Negative Thoughts,” or “ANTS” for short.

A Helpful Exercise

          There’s something you can do anytime you’re in a group of people, that will be very helpful in preparing you to recognize your automatic thoughts:  See if you can become aware of the running commentary that’s almost always going on in your mind just below the surface of your awareness (and sometimes in full view!): 

Hmmm, I wonder what they’re talking about. Looks like they’re having a fight.  I wonder who did what to whom.  I’ll bet it’s his fault – the bum! . . .  She looks like a real piece of work.  I wonder what her problem is . . .  Look what he just  put in his shopping cart! No wonder he’s overweight . . .  OMG, I can’t believe (s)he’s wearing those shoes! . . .   Oooo, that’s a really cool shirt – I wonder where he got it.  I bet it would look really good on me . . .  That was a strange look she just gave me – she must think I’m weird.  I guess I am weird . . .  Oooo, that seemed like a flirtatious glance.  I wonder if I look good today . . .

          If you haven’t tried this exercise before, please don’t be alarmed by the incessant, often negative critic you discover living inside your head.  It’s kind of like having a hostile roommate that never shuts up and won’t move out.  We almost all have that to one degree or other.  But the more we become aware of this stream of automatic negative thoughts, the less power it will have to shape our moods and emotional reactions. 

What are ANTS?

          Automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) are often irrational interpretations of an event.  They always involve some kind of judgment or evaluation.

          Having said that, as you begin to identify your ANTS, you may be thinking to yourself, “But that’s not a judgment – that’s the truth.”

          This is one of the biggest challenges people often have with the Mood Log.  Because our reactions are so deeply ingrained, and our justifications for those reactions are so automatic and feel so solid, it can be very hard to see how our biases and habits of interpretation have distorted what actually happened.

          In Step 4 of the Log, you’ll be identifying specific ways in which your automatic thoughts are distorted.  But in this step, just try to be open to the possibility that they may not be as completely accurate and rational as they seem.

          Remember, the first step of the Mood Log was to come up with a neutral, non-judgmental description of an event you found disturbing. The more you were able to keep judgments and interpretations out of your description, the easier it will be for you to identify your distorted thoughts related to that event.  You may want to revisit that description before continuing, to see if you still think it’s neutral.

Basic Guidelines

When you write down your ANTS:

  • They should be short sentences.
  • They should not be a question.
  • They should not describe feelings (that’s what you did in Step 2).

          As an example, let’s say you’re a serious student who tries hard to do well, and your “event” is that you’re about to take a test.  Your emotional reaction is that you feel anxious and insecure.  There area number of automatic negative thoughts that could be associated with those feelings:

This test is going to be super hard.
I didn’t study enough - I never study enough.
I’m such a bad student.
I’m a lazy good-for-nothing.
The teacher is looking at me – (s)he thinks I’m stupid.
I’m going to flunk this test.
My grade point average will be ruined.
I’ll never get into grad school.
Everyone’s going to think I’m a pathetic idiot.
Oh – who cares, they’re all a bunch of over-achieving nerds anyway.

The Step-by-Step Process

1.     Preparation:

Just as with Steps 1 and 2, you might want to pause to take a few slow deep breaths and remind yourself:

“The cause of my negative emotion is not the event.  It’s the story (interpretation, or evaluation) I am telling myself about the event.” 

This will help shift your focus away from blaming the person or situation, and direct it towards your own thoughts, beliefs, and judgments.

2.     Write down your automatic thoughts related to the event:

Write them as brief sentences. (They should not include statements about how you feel).

3.     Rate the thoughts:

After you’ve written them down, rate how strongly you believe each of the thoughts.  Use a scale of 1 (you don’t really believe it at all) to 100 (you’re totally convinced it’s true).

Some Tricks for Helping to Identify ANTS

          If you’re finding it difficult to figure out your automatic thoughts, here are a couple of tricks people have found helpful.

Start with the Distortions

          This may seem like a backwards approach, but it works well for some.  Basically, it involves looking ahead to Step 4 where we list the different types of distortions, and seeing which one(s) might help to account for the reaction you had.

          You would start by taking one of the distortions - for example, “catastrophic thinking” – and see if perhaps a catastrophic thought might have triggered your reaction.  If that seems possible, then you would try to identify what that thought was. In the example above, you might realize you had a number of catastrophic thoughts:

I’m going to flunk this test.
        (Are you really going to flunk, or just get something less than an A?)
My grade point average will be ruined.
        (Can one test permanently destroy your grade point average?)
I’ll never get into grad school.
        (Isn’t that a rather wild conclusion to come to on the basis of one test that
          you haven’t even taken yet?)
Everyone’s going to think I’m a pathetic idiot.

          Then look at the other distortions on the list and see if they help you to come up with other ANTS for the event.

Look at Your Desires and Fears

          It’s almost always the case that the source of distortions is our “downstairs” brain – that is, our emotional and instinctive brains.  Our “downstairs brain” is not dedicated to finding out the truth of things.  Its aim is to protect our survival, to increase our pleasure, our enjoyment, our control of our environment, and our attachments to others.

          When something happens that our “downstairs brain” perceives as threatening to its aims, it will attempt to take control of our thinking brain to make it protect those aims - often against the thinking brain's better judgment. That’s why ANTS are also referred to as “irrational” thoughts – they conflict with our more reasonable “thinking” brain.

          This understanding of how the brain works suggests another approach to discovering your ANTS – that is, to look at the event in terms of the desires and fears of your “downstairs brain.”  You might try asking questions like:

  • "What did I want to happen?" 
  • "What was I afraid would happen?"  
  • "What desire did I have that was being interfered with by what happened?"  

          In the above example, you might discover desires like wanting to ace the test, impress your teacher and classmates, and get into a prestigious grad school.

          If you didn’t have those desires, you might not have cared so much about the test, and therefore wouldn’t have felt so anxious.  But even if you did have those desires, you still wouldn’t have been so anxious if you didn’t also have the belief or assumption that it would be disastrous if those desires weren’t fulfilled.

           Once you recognize the desires and fears that powered your reaction, it is easier to see the thoughts that relate to your fear of not getting what you wanted.

          When you’ve completed this step, it’s time to go on to the 4th step of identifying the distortions.