Skip main navigation

Changing Your Thoughts

One of the most difficult things about changing your thoughts, or cognitions, is that our thoughts are often automatic. This means that we don’t necessarily notice our thoughts, they‘re not in our conscious awareness, and negative thoughts have their effect on us without us even noticing.
© University of Reading

One of the most difficult things about changing your thoughts, or cognitions, is that our thoughts are often automatic. This means that we don’t necessarily notice our thoughts, they‘re not in our conscious awareness, and negative thoughts have their effect on us without us even noticing.

The Challenge of Changing Your Thoughts

Even if you understand the theory it can be really hard to tackle the negative thinking that keeps depression going. When you’re depressed, it’s even harder – depression is linked with low motivation, lack of energy, and problems concentrating – all of these make it really difficult to stand back and pay attention to automatic thoughts. For a depressed teenager, who’s still developing their own thinking abilities, it can be even harder than it is for adults.

As an adult, a parent or teacher, you may be able to help a young person to check, catch, and challenge their own negative thoughts. You might also find it interesting or even useful to check, catch and challenge your own negative thoughts – we all have them.

Automatic Thoughts

Let’s consider how Emma (below) was overwhelmed with negative thoughts as she lay in bed after getting ready for school the next day. She wasn’t the only one, Emma’s mum Lucy had plenty of automatic positive and negative thoughts of her own.

As Lucy noticed Emma getting ready for school she was immediately really pleased and delighted. She knew how hard it was for Emma and was proud to see her so determined to overcome her problem.

Lucy's thoughts: It’s great to see Emma getting ready for school I’m so pleased she has decided to try I’d love to help her – but how? If I get involved and it goes wrong it’ll be my fault We always seem to argue; I can’t say anything right these days It’s probably better for me to let her get on with it I’ll keep out of her way

In the morning, Lucy wants to help Emma and to make it as easy as possible for her. She knows that today will be hard and that it’s important that Emma gets to school as planned. She wakes Emma at 7am but Emma’s had a sleepless night and is grumpy and irritable.

Lucy's thoughts: Poor Emma, I hate to see her so unhappy I’ll hope she likes the breakfast I made her Nothing I do is right How can I make it easier for her? She’s impossible to live with I can’t say anything to make this better I’ll keep out of her way

How Could Lucy Challenge Emma’s Thoughts?

It’s hard to help someone who is depressed and unhappy. Could Lucy do anything differently to make her feel less hopeless to help Emma? Could Lucy think about the situation differently? Would that have any likely impact on how she feels?

© University of Reading
This article is from the free online

Understanding Depression and Low Mood in Young People

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education