The notion of Automatic Thoughts (ATs) is one of the central tenets of Cognitive Therapy (CT)…
…and was developed by Aaron T. Beck (b.1921), one of the founders of what has become Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
When he was conducting psychoanalytical research into the dreams of patients, Beck became quite interested not in the content of the dreams themselves, an area that occupies a central place in (Freudian) psychoanalysis, but in what was going through the patient's mind as s/he was relating back a particular dream.
Beck noted that what was actually going through their minds were a series of automatic thoughts (ATs) that were simply popping into their heads, and related to their particular emotions that they were experiencing at the time. Regardless of the content of the dream, these automatic thoughts were almost always about emotions and moods that dominated their conscious lives. And the more these automatic thoughts occurred, the more intensely they would feel that emotion.
Some of his patients suffered from panic attacks, and whenever they experienced such an attack would become fearful that their increased heart rate was an indication that they were experiencing the beginnings of a heart attack, a notion so scary that they would become more anxious still.
His social anxiety (shy) patients tended to experience automatic thoughts about doing things that others might find silly or boring, and as a result, they feared rejection, they over-monitored their behaviour and became even more anxious.
Some of his patients found it difficult to manage their anger, and their automatic thoughts, he found, focused on transgressions ("This shouldn't happen", "They shouldn't do that - I'll teach them") which, of course, increased their anger.
And the automatic thoughts of depressed patients were all about being trapped, or inferior, or losers, and that little change will occur in our lives, a prospect which made them more depressed.
Beck wondered what would happen if, instead of focusing on their dreams, he concentrated on those automatic thoughts, getting people to see them for what they were, in detail, and analysing them for accuracy and reasonableness and, if they were found wanting, generating more accurate and more reasonable alternatives.
The central message to be conveyed was: Just because you think something, or feel strongly about it, or feel it to be true, you shouldn't assume it is true