Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): What Are Thought Records?

Thought records are used to test automatic thoughts, and they’re a key tool in CBT. The idea is to practice these over and over so it starts to become automatic to critically evaluate your thoughts – so automatic that your mind goes through the process even if you don’t actually have a thought record form in front of you. 

The thought record starts with the activating event, the A from your ABCs. Be specific about this, including details like who, what, when, and where. 

The next step is to identify the “hot thought” or thoughts. These stand out as the thoughts that generate the strongest reaction and the most distress, and they tend to exemplify the meaning you attribute to the triggering incident. 

Next, you identify the strongest emotion that the hot thought stirs up. Use a single word (this helps make sure you’re identifying an emotion rather than another thought), and rate the intensity from 0-100%. 

Finding Evidence for & Against Thoughts 

Often, we support our beliefs using our thoughts and feelings, and we don’t go beyond our own heads to look for more objective evidence. Objective evidence is anything that would be apparent to anyone looking at the situation; what’s going on inside your head doesn’t count as objective evidence, no matter how real or strong it is to you. 

As an example, let’s say you made a mistake doing something. As a result, you might conclude that you’re stupid/incompetent/useless, which leads to you feeling generally lousy about yourself as a person. To an objective bystander, however, your mistake proves no such thing; it simply proves that you made a mistake. The fact that you think you’re stupid is not objective evidence of your stupidity; rather, it’s your subjective reaction and appraisal.

Evidence for and against can also be used to evaluate expectations. What is the worst that could happen? What is the likelihood of that happening? How would you manage even if the worst did happen? What is a more likely outcome? What unhelpful behaviours do you have related to these expectations? 

Identifying a More Balanced Thought 

Based on the evidence you identified for and against the hot thought, develop a more balanced alternative thought. Rate the strength of your belief in that thought on a scale of 0-100%. 

Once you’ve identified the balanced thought, rate the intensity of the hot emotion that you identified at the beginning of the thought record. The “expected” drop in intensity is 20-30%.

Sometimes it will turn out that the hot thought is true in a literal sense. In this case, getting distressed about it is a significant drain on your mental resources, and it may be better to shift focus onto developing an action plan to address the reality of the situation as it is. 


If you’re having trouble identifying evidence for and against a thought, or coming up with a balanced alternative thought, there are a couple of things you could try. One is to remove yourself from the situation and imagine a close friend or family member being in your shoes. What feedback might you give to them? You could also ask someone close to you to help you work through the thought record with you. They may have some ideas that you hadn’t thought of. 

You can do thought records as often or as seldom as you want, but once a day is a good frequency to aim for if you want to give it a serious try. It can be done shortly after the trigger occurred, or you can wait a bit, but you’ll want to do it when you’re still feeling the hot emotion.

Evaluating Rules & Assumptions 

We’ve all got them – rules and assumptions that guide how we approach our day-to-day lives. Mostly we tend to take them for granted. However, often these rules and assumptions aren’t actually serving us very well. Learning to recognize these is the first step in evaluating how helpful or unhelpful they are in our lives. 

Most of us have a pile of shoulds that we tote around with us. Unless they’re associated with an “I need to” or “I want to,” they could probably use some re-evaluating. Here are a few questions to reflect on related to rules and assumptions: 

Reflection questions 

  • What are some of the rules and assumptions you commonly use? 
  • Which rule has the greatest impact in your daily life, and how has this affected you? 
  • What does it feel like when you are following that rule? 
  • What is the original source of the rule/assumption? 
  • What could be an alternate explanation for what fed into the rule/assumption/core belief?
  • What are the pros and cons of adhering to the rule/assumption? 
  • What would be the pros and cons of changing the rule/assumption/core belief? 
  • What is a more balanced, flexible version of the rule/assumption?


Pritam Chakraborty

As I was moving through life, I occasionally saw brief glimpses of beauty.

Post a Comment

Share your thoughts! We're eager to hear you out

Previous Post Next Post