The Benefits of Keeping a Thought Journal Great Lakes Psychology Group

The Benefits of Keeping a Thought Journal

A woman sitting against an orange accent wall, listening to her AirPods and writing in her thought journal. Enjoying the benefits of keeping a thought journal.

Everyone has been there—your smartphone had an automatic software update overnight and your typical 6:30 am alarm did not go off. You spring out of bed in a panic after seeing 7:01 am on your phone. You scramble to get dressed and out the door, blood pressure rising and heart racing as you get into your car and back out of your driveway. As you speed to get to work on time your mood changes from anxious to angry, and at the same time this thought crosses your mind: “This always happens to me! Why can’t I just have a calm morning for once?”

Something I often ask my clients is to observe what goes through their minds when they notice a change in their mood (for example, from neutral to anxious or from anxious to angry). I ask this because it clues us in on our automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts are exactly what they sound like—the thoughts we experience reflexively in response to an external or internal event. They can have a direct impact on our mood, behavior, and physical state. Automatic thoughts are also where cognitive distortions live (Beck, 1995). Cognitive distortions are thoughts that contain a skewed, erroneous, or irrational perception of our experience.

The issue is that we sometimes buy these cognitive distortions as fact, and as a result we experience emotional distress.

Types of Cognitive Distortions

There are many different types of cognitive distortions, including the following:

  • Jumping to conclusions: “My friend hasn’t responded to my text yet, he must be mad  at me for something I said”
  • All-or-nothing thinking: “I sounded unprepared while presenting in that meeting, this day is ruined”
  • Disqualifying the positive: “Yeah I got the promotion but it was totally by chance”
  • Should/must statements: “I should have been better prepared for that test”
  • Emotional Reasoning: “It feels like I let everyone down, therefore I did let everyone down”

Everyone has automatic thoughts, and everyone also has automatic thoughts that are cognitive distortions. That being said, if we are in the midst of a stressful situation or experiencing a depressive or anxiety episode, cognitive distortions may be more intense and frequent. Cognitive distortions have a significant impact on our mental health, family life, work life, and relationships because they can exacerbate distressing emotions and even lead us to cope in unhealthy or unhelpful ways.

One way of changing these distressing thoughts is by keeping a thought record.

Follow these steps to start & enjoy the benefits of keeping a thought journal:

Identify Automatic Thoughts

The easiest way to do this is to journal what you are thinking or imagining when you notice a change in your mood (Beck, 1995). Write down or record on your phone the exact words (or image) going through your mind at that time. Your cue to start recording is when you notice a mood change.

Determine If Your Automatic Thought Falls Into a Cognitive Distortion Category

After recording the thought or image, take a look at a list of common cognitive distortions and notice if your thought/image matches up with any of them. Please remember—everyone experiences these! It’s important to hold a non-judgmental stance towards ourselves when identifying these cognitive distortions.

Challenge The Automatic Thought

Thought challenging is a common skill used in cognitive behavioral therapy. Once you identify that an automatic thought is a cognitive distortion, you can ask yourself a series of questions to help deconstruct the thought and rebuild a more balanced and less distressing thought. Here are some examples of these questions (Beck,1995 p. 109):

  • What is the evidence for this thought?
  • What is the evidence against this thought?
  • What is the effect of me believing that this thought is true?
  • What would I tell a friend who had the same thought or was in the same situation?

Notice Any Trends

Maybe all-or-nothing thinking is more frequent when you make a mistake at work. Or maybe you experience jumping to conclusions if your routine is thrown off by something unexpected. These patterns or “habits” in thinking can be changed just like our behavioral patterns—it just takes awareness, replacing the distorted thought with a balanced thought, and repetition.

You will find it progressively easier to detect cognitive distortions and replace them with more balanced and realistic thoughts as you keep up with your thought record. Cognitive distortions will continue to pop up in your life—and that is okay! But by keeping a thought record you will learn that you don’t need to buy them as facts, and open yourself up to emotional relief in the long run.

Looking to work through cognitive distortions with a therapist? Book an appointment at

References: Beck, Judith S (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. The Guilford Press.


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More about Sean Berbert, LCPC

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At some point or another, we have all found ourselves doing, thinking, or feeling things that seem to do us more harm than good. I want to help you examine these things, and get to the “why” behind them—because that is where healing can begin. I graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana- Champaign, Summa Cum Laude, and went on to complete my Masters degree in Clinical Psychology at Wheaton College (IL). My experience in the field includes working in outpatient therapy clinics, intensive outpatient programs, psychiatric emergency rooms, the National Suicide Lifeline, and substance use programs. I have extensive experience treating adults and young adults with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and personality disorders. I also have a special interest in treating addictions (including family members affected by addiction), those struggling with life transitions, professionals, and working through issues surrounding existential matters (examining one’s values, beliefs, purpose). I utilize an eclectic approach to therapy and draw on psychodynamic, CBT, DBT, and existential approaches in my work. My hobbies include golfing, trying out obscure restaurants, geography, snowboarding, and cheering on my favorite sports teams.