How to Do a Thought Record

Troubleshooting Tips for this Classic Tool of Cognitive Therapy.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

One of the core tools in cognitive behavioral therapy is the Thought Record. This is a one-page worksheet that you use in a difficult situation to help you notice your unhelpful ways of thinking and change your perspective to something more beneficial. It sounds like a great idea, but there are many ways that this work can go wrong. This blog post will walk you through a simple method and help you avoid some of the pitfalls that I have experienced and helped people through when trying to use this powerful tool.

There are many variations on thought records. A quick Google search will turn up countless free templates available online, each one a little different. They go from three to seven columns wide. Some prompt for a wider range of things, others are more basic. I suggest looking through these templates and trying a few out, then building your own that best suits your own way of thinking and working. I will be using a simple three-column method in this post, (1) Thoughts and Feelings, (2) Observe and Identify, and finally (3) Rethink and Re-Do.

The very first question that tends to come up is “when do I do a thought record?” Many worksheets have a section labeled “event” or “situation” where you are asked to fill in the circumstances that occurred that led to the painful thought processes you want to use the worksheet to explore. Unfortunately, this can be misleading. People often think there needs to be some big event, like a major argument or crisis, in order to do a worksheet.

Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash
Source: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

In reality, there are many day-to-day occurrences that might benefit from a thought record. The events that elicit a mental or emotional downward spiral can be quite subtle. It might be “my alarm clock went off this morning.” Or, “I received an email from my boss.” Or, “I remembered an overdue bill while I was in the shower.” Any of these small things might warrant a thought record. The clue that a thought record might be useful is that you are experiencing intrusive thoughts, a worsening mood, or both. Don’t be too precious about it; the more thought records you do, the more regularly you do them, the more you will gain through practice.

The first main activity of a thought record is to write down your thoughts about the situation at hand. Some worksheets only ask you to write your thoughts, others also have you list your emotions in a separate column. Sometimes people get bogged down about which comes first, the thought or emotion. For the purposes of the thought record, it also does not matter very much. I have found it most pragmatic to just to write both thoughts and feelings in the same column. I label this column Thoughts and Feelings.

Sometimes people don’t generate a lot of content for this part. When that happens, I suggest slowing down and trying to expand it. For instance, you might have felt hurt by something your spouse said this morning. However, you were in a hurry and trying to avoid a fight, so you quickly changed the topic and got on with your day. Your mood gradually worsened, and there might be some thoughts and feelings percolating in the background that you’ve been trying to ignore. In your thought record, take the time to let those thoughts and feelings arise. Expand on your thoughts, let yourself vent a little bit, to best capture the full thought process you have about the situation. This will give you more material to work with when doing the remainder of the activity.

The next step is what I call Observe and Identify. It involves going back over the first column to review the accuracy of your thoughts. This is where we start to learn how to identify our own habits of unhelpful thinking, what are sometimes called thought distortions. If you do a quick search, you’ll find many lists of common thought distortions or unhelping thinking habits. Some of them are more obvious, like black-and-white thinking or catastrophizing, while others are more subtle.  

In this second column, start to make notes of what unhelpful habits or inaccurate thoughts you see. You could underline, circle, or draw lines to what you see in the first column, or just make a list of the different problems you see.

When doing this step, it is important not to be aggressive with oneself. It’s important to try to be curious and kind with yourself, to remember that this is a learning process. You are doing this activity because you are aware that when you are distressed your thinking becomes unhelpful or inaccurate in some way. This is true for everyone to some extent, so remember you are not alone. Try to be patient and encouraging with yourself as you try this out.

Do not assume that all of your thoughts are distortions. Many of your thoughts might be quite accurate assessments of the situation. It takes some discernment, practice, and often help from a therapist or self-help materials to see which thoughts are constructive and helpful and which are not. It’s also important to notice that a thought may be factually accurate but not helpful in the moment. You may really need to contemplate leaving your spouse, but the moment when you are still quite upset after a fight is probably not the best time to do so.

Lastly, be sure not to invalidate your own emotions in this step. Your emotions aren’t there to criticize. Your emotions need care and friendliness, not harsh judgment. So, focus your attention on noticing and marking only the unhelpful or inaccurate thought processes.

As you observe and identify your unhelpful thinking habits, feel free to use labels or phrases that are the most meaningful for you. For example, you might notice a way of talking to yourself that is just as harsh as an abusive parent. If that’s the case, you could write down “self-abuse” or “abuser’s voice.” You might notice that you are dwelling on problems unconstructively and decide the word “dwelling” is descriptive for you. It’s okay if you don’t see many of the traditional cognitive distortions. As long as you can see ways you are thinking that might be unhelpful, you are headed in the right direction.

In the third and final column, Rethink and Re-Do, write down options for anything you can change that might help going forward. This is often the hardest column. If you could quickly and easily change your unhelpful thought patterns, you would probably already be doing it naturally and not have much need to do the worksheets. For that reason, don’t get discouraged if you draw a blank here. You may need to see more examples or talk it through with a therapist to get some ideas.

A good place to start is to go back and look at the problematic thoughts you identified. If you noticed you were catastrophizing something, for instance, you might change that thought to something more balanced. This column is not about creating some new, Pollyanna reality for yourself. Make sure you aren’t over-correcting any negative thinking to the point where it feels inaccurately positive instead. For instance, you would not want to change “this relationship is awful” to “this relationship is great.” Instead, you might change to “this relationship has both good and bad qualities, it’s important to remember the full picture.”

The primary focus of this column is developing newer, more helpful, and perhaps more accurate ways of thinking. Again, sometimes the problem is not inaccuracy but just being overly focused on the problem. For instance, your initial thought might be “I’m so bad at meeting deadlines.” In column two, you might notice that this is a little black-and-white, and also includes unhelpful self-judgment. The newer, more balanced view might include acknowledgement that meeting deadlines is not a strength. You might write “deadlines are hard for me, but I am continuing to try to do better.” Or, “deadlines are difficult, but I deserve kindness instead of judgment when I miss one.”

Although new thoughts are the focus of this column, I also find it helpful to prompt people to also consider new behaviors that might be helpful. In the example about not meeting deadlines, you might add “I will commit to learning more about mastering deadlines” and research some tips to try out. If your initial thoughts and feelings included intense anger, you might make a note to soothe yourself when you are angry instead of stoking the fire with thoughts about how outraged you are. You might make a note to take a few deep breaths and slow down instead.

This final column is meant to be a reference. The final column should be a script you can follow, a new way of thinking when similar situations arise down the line. Don’t just file the completed worksheets away; keep them handy so they are there for you when you need them. Also, be sure to take the time to re-read your new thoughts multiple times. We need to maximize the impact of these new thoughts, to try to internalize them, so try to really feel them in your body. What changes do you notice in your mood when you think these new thoughts instead? What different reality do you begin to inhabit? You may not fully believe the new thoughts yet, but what might life be like if you did? Take some time here, because this is where true transformation can happen.

Thought records can be an amazing tool, and with good self-help resources or an excellent therapist they can be truly transformative. Unfortunately, they are sometimes poorly understood even by clinicians, can easily taught in an unhelpful manner, and end up being misused and misunderstood. Hopefully, these tips and tricks help you get the most out of what they have to offer. They aren’t a panacea but can be a useful addition to your personal growth toolbox.