Thought Logs: An Essential Technique to have in your Mental Health ToolKit

If you remember my post about cognitive distortions, you might be wondering what to do after you’ve recognized that you’re engaging in distorted thinking. Enter thought logs!

Thought logs are a central tool in cognitive therapy that outline situations we find problematic and our distressing thoughts and feelings associated with them. Putting our thoughts to paper in this way allows us to critically evaluate evidence for and against our automatic negative thoughts. With practice, thought logs can help us develop new more constructive ways of thinking that can help us feel better.

If you find that you frequently engage in cognitive distortions (and many of us do) you might notice that your emotional responses to these automatic interpretations can be unbalanced. If our mind perceives things in a distorted way, it can be hard to expect regulated emotional reactions.

There are six core steps to completing a thought record. Here’s a fillable worksheet you can download and print off to do at home.

1. Identify the situation

Describe what is upsetting you.

2. Identify the Feeling Associated with the Situation and its intensity

Rate the emotions on a scale from 1-10 or 1-100%, whatever makes most sense for you – just be consistent.

This can help.

emotion-wheel

3. Identify the Automatic Thought Associated with the Situation

a) What does this say about me? What are my core beliefs about myself and the world?

b) What am I afraid might happen?

c) What is the worst-case scenario if this were true?

d) What was going through my mind just before I became upset?

4. Examine the Evidence

This can be tricky because we’re so used to operating under the assumption that our thoughts are true. It can be hard to come up with evidence against our automatic thoughts because we tend to seek information that supports how we feel.

Be discriminating. Focus on objective information and consider as many possible perspectives as possible.

This is where it can be helpful to pull out that chart of cognitive thinking errors. Identifying where your habitual perspective might be coming from can help us take a different approach to interpreting the situation.

You can even ask someone for help at generating different explanations if you find it difficult. Here are 9 helpful questions to ask of your negative thoughts.

a) What if the opposite were true? What alternative ways are there to interpret the situation? 

b) Is this an automatic response rather than an accurate reflection of the situation? 

c) Am I making assumptions? (i.e. mind-reading, fortune telling)

d) Am I considering all the information (filtering, over-generalizing, discounting the positives, jumping to conclusions etc.).

e) If I was in a good mood – how might I have viewed the situation? 

f) What would a good friend or loved-one think? How would they argue that this isn’t true? 

5. Construct a More Balanced View

Chances are, if you were able to identify a cognitive distortion you might have been able to come up with some evidence against your initial thought. Maybe what you initially believe isn’t entirely true. Try to come up with an alternative explanation for the situation that is more balanced and takes into account all the information.

Distorted thinking often emphasizes the negative aspects of a situation, a more realistic perspective should consider other possibilities.

The more work you do collecting evidence and constructing a view that you find to be believable, the more helpful your thought log can be at easing negative feelings.

It’s okay if you don’t entirely believe your new perspective to be true. Simply by opening the door to new perspectives and different ways to interpret a situation, you can begin to give yourself wiggle room to take your power back from self-defeating automatic thoughts.

Commonly, things that worry us are likely to re-occur in our lives (i.e. work or school etc.). We are increasingly likely to be able to apply constructive perspectives if we used thought logs to explore them differently already.

6. Re-Evaluate your Initial Mood

Hopefully you will feel like you have given yourself some space from your initial distress, even if you don’t fully buy in to the new balanced thought. Even if you only feel a tiny bit better this is a step in the right direction.

When you find yourself stuck ruminating over something that is bother you, continue to fill out thought logs. You may soon find yourself becoming mindfully aware of situations that upset you, rather than letting yourself get completely lost in your old emotional reactions.

Doing this homework might seem tedious but it truly can be helpful. Each time you notice or revisit a problematic thought, you are building autonomy into your life. You’re giving yourself a chance to take control back from harmful habits. You are slowly carving out a space between action and reaction where you have the power to choose how to proceed.

With time, and lots of thought records…. you might even begin to notice that your immediate responses to situations have changed from what they once were.

Let’s do an Example

1 - You're walking through the office and you say "hi" to your co-worker but they don't say anything back. 

2 - Maybe you feel vulnerable, hurt or embarrassed. I might also feel anxious/worried and maybe insecure. 

Insecure - 90%

Anxious - 80%

3 - Automatic thought A: I did something to make them upset.

B:  They don't like me. (I'm not worth acknowledging.)

4 - Evidence for - They didn't say hi to me

Evidence against - I don't recall having done anything to upset them. They generally do say hi. There are many reasons someone might not reply that are unrelated to my wroth as a person. They could have been distracted. Maybe they didn't hear. 

5 - Balanced thought:  My colleague didn't say hi back but there are many possible explanations and it doesn't necessarily mean that they hate me. I often get caught up in my own thoughts and don't hear passersby. If I did do something to upset them unknowingly, I'm sure it will come up later and it can be properly addressed. 

6 - Maybe still anxious but slightly less so - i.e. 50%

Insecure - 40%

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