Automatic Thoughts

Automatic thoughts are spontaneous ideas—ideations or thoughts typically indicated by internal self-statements or self-talk. Cognitive theories emphasize the roles of belief systems, cognitive schematas, intellectual processes, and automatic thoughts in behavioral operations. Each individual has a frame of reference, variously called personality, lifestyle, worldview, and so on, within which one copes with life. One's inner belief structure depends on past experiences, learnings, goals, purposes, and core belief structures. Automatic thoughts differ from belief structures. Merluzzi and Boltwood (1989) state, "an important distinction between automatic thoughts or self statements and underlying schemata or belief systems [is] automatic thoughts are spontaneous self statements or ruminations. ... In contrast cognitive schematas are seen as relatively stable, enduring traits like cognitive patterns" (p. 256). Similarly, Beck and Weishaar (1989b) distinguish between automatic and voluntary thoughts. Voluntary thoughts are fully conscious self-determined decisions. Automatic thoughts "are more stable and less accessible than voluntary thoughts [and] are generally quite powerful" (Beck & Weishaar, 1989a, p. 28). Both voluntary thoughts and automatic thoughts are consistent with one's core beliefs or schematas.

Beck and Weishaar (1989b) point out that a variety of situations, events, or circumstances may trigger underlying core beliefs and generate automatic thoughts. More specifically, automatic thoughts "intercede between a stimulus event and one's emotional and behavioral reactions to it" (Beck & Weishaar, 1989a, p. 28).

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