The emotional impact of automatic thoughts

While automatic thoughts may seem inconsequential, they can actually play a very important role in our emotional health. This is because our thoughts can have a direct influence on our feelings. To put it plainly, the way we feel can stem from the way we think. 

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Why this matters

Our minds constantly process information without our full awareness. Many (even most) of our thoughts and mental images spring to mind without any conscious initiation or involvement on our part. They just seem to appear out of nowhere. While reading this page, for example, certain phrases might trigger thoughts and memories for you. These thoughts happen quickly and automatically. We can have up to tens of thousands of thoughts flash through our minds in a given day. Cognitive psychologists call them “automatic thoughts” because they happen automatically, without any intentional effort. Although these thoughts happen quickly, you can train yourself to become aware of them as they happen. If you pay attention to what’s going through your mind next time you sit in a meeting, for example, you may notice all sorts of automatic thoughts (e.g., “What else do I need at the grocery store?”, “I wonder where he got that tie?”, “The way he’s clicking that pen is so annoying”).

Explore and reflect

Consider these examples:

Situation:  A coworker did not acknowledge my comment in a meeting.

Automatic thought. “She thinks I’m an idiot.”

  • Possible emotional reaction: Sad, insecure, angry

Automatic thought. “She disagrees with me and will want to talk to me about this in private.”

  • Possible emotional reaction: Nervous, anxious

Automatic thought. “They don’t consider me part of the team.”

  • Possible emotional reaction: Sad, isolated

Automatic thought. “She had too much to think about and forgot to acknowledge me.”

  • Possible emotional reaction: Calm, Neutral

If we interpret a situation in a negative way, we are likely to have negative feelings; if we interpret the same situation positively, we are likely to have more positive feelings.

Take action

Plan to take special notice of your automatic thoughts next time you have an opportunity in a workplace situation. If it is possible, try to make some notes right away. Keep track of the thoughts and their emotional impact. Later in the day, revisit the thoughts and ask yourself whether in retrospect you feel that they accurately represented the situation. It is especially important to recognize thoughts that have a negative emotional impact and also fail to represent a situation accurately. Over time, these thoughts can have a significant impact on your perceptions of your role and effectiveness in the workplace.

For example:


Automatic thought

Emotional reaction

Accuracy of thought (in retrospect)

Additional resources

Tame your self-talk.“You idiot!” You’d be offended if someone said this to you, but how often do you say it to yourself? Learn to make your self-talk more respectful.

Link emotions, thoughts and behaviours. We associate our emotions – positive or negative – with the ways we think about ourselves, how we behave and how we perceive others and the world.

Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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