Beck’s cognitive theory of depression

According to Aaron Beck’s cognitive theory, people who are vulnerable to depression learn important lessons early in life that reflect how they interact with the world – these are known as core beliefs. These beliefs can reflect how they view about themselves, others, or the world. For example, a young boy (Alex) grew up with neglectful parents who rarely gave him the support and validation he needed. They often ignored his calls for attention and only gave him the basic necessities. Because of that, he established beliefs about himself (“I am not loved”); other people (“other people do not care”); and the world (“life is lonely”).

These core beliefs guide how Alex sees and interacts with the world. For example, if a friend cancels a plan to hang out, a thought might come up that is consistent with his belief: “my friend does not care or value me”. These automatic thoughts can elicit negative emotions (shame, low mood, hopelessness) and cause Alex to engage in behaviours that increase vulnerability to depression, such as distancing himself from friends. These beliefs also impact how Alex views positive events, such as when someone does something nice for him. His beliefs may activate a thought, such as “they are just doing this to get something from me”. As you can see, core beliefs can substantially impact the way we view life itself.

An CBT example of how a SITUATION (doing poorly on an exam) can lead to an automatic THOUGHT (I’m stupid and worthless), EMOTION (depressed, guilty, upset), PHYSICAL FEELINGS (discomfort, aches), and BEHAVIOURS (lying in bed)

Changing your negative thoughts and beliefs

Because of this theory, one natural conclusion that came about to tackle these beliefs and thoughts was to challenge them. This led to the development of a thought record, which is a cognitive behavioural therapy tool that many clinicians employ to target these unhelpful thoughts. A thought record is a way to evaluate our thoughts in an objective and accurate manner and come up with a more realistic and balanced thought. Below we talk about the steps to completing a thought record.

Steps to completing a thought record

Step 1. Write down the situation. Jot down a situation where an automatic thought came up that affected you. For example, “putting my baby to bed and the baby starts crying”.

Step 2. Write down the automatic thought. Write the automatic thought that came up. For example, “I am a bad mother” or “there is something wrong with the baby”. Sometimes, more than one comes up – and that’s okay! Pick a few to write down and you can work on each of them individually afterwards (or just focus on one that really resonates with you).

Step 3. Write down the emotions and rate its intensity. Write down what emotions came up that were associated with the thought and rates its intensity from 0 = “not at all” to 100 = “extremely high”. Examples can include “anxious = 70”, “depressed = 75”, “guilty = 90”, etc.

Step 4. Jot down evidence FOR the thought. When evaluating our thoughts, we need to be objective and examine the thoughts fairly – even for evidence that supports that negative thought. This is important in creating a balanced thought that takes into account all perspectives. Examples might be “the baby is upset because she is crying” and “I am not able to spend all my time with her”.

Step 5. Jot down evidence AGAINST the thought. Now write down evidence that does not support the thought: “my baby is often smiling at me”, “I spent lots of time with her, reading books to her, and recently I bought my baby a new doll that she liked”. The brain loves examples, so make sure to pull from previous experiences!

Step 6. From both evidence for and against the thought, develop your BALANCED thought. A balanced thought carefully considers both sides to develop a reasoned perspective. An example might be “Although there are times that my baby will be upset and I cannot meet all her demands, there are many examples where I am a good mom, and my baby is often very happy to see me”.

Step 7. Re-rate the intensity of your emotions. See if your ratings change (even a little bit) on any of the emotions you listed. Small successes are still successes, and I would be very heartened to know that this improved your mood by even a little bit!

Step 8. Read the balanced thought repeatedly!

“I think, therefore I am sad”
– Descartes circa 1637, in the midst of depression he added an extra word to his original dictum

Tips for success!

And there you have it – your very first thought record! The thought record is a very flexible tool that can be used in many different situations for a number of different thoughts. These can be thoughts that affect your mood, increases anxiety, or are just generally unhelpful to your everyday life. To support you in your thought restructuring journey, here are a few tips that might be helpful.

1. Make sure that the balanced thought is accurate and evidence-based! Our brain is very smart and has a strong radar for BS. It’s often not enough to just replace the negative thought with opposite pleasant thoughts, such as “I will be perfect” and “everyone loves me”. Sometimes, pushing our negative thought away can lead to even more distress.

2. Therefore, it’s important to ground our thoughts in facts! Our brain loves examples, so the more examples you can give to counter the thought – the better!

3. If the negative thought about a future event (such as “I’m going to fail the presentation and everyone will think I am stupid”), then take this as an opportunity to 1) use the thought record to challenge your current thoughts and 2) be a curious scientist to see if the negative prediction is true. That way, next time you will have real-world evidence to determine whether your thoughts are likely to be true or not. This is called a behavioural experiment, which I talk about in a different post. See HERE.

4. Be patient! Doing one thought record and reading the balanced thought a couple times is not necessarily enough to change the core beliefs that have been entrenched over a lifetime. Thought records are a skill and the more you practice, the better you get.

I hope this post was helpful in teaching you on doing thought records and gives you another stepping stone on your mental health journey!  

Best wishes,