You’re not the only one who focuses on the negative. Here’s what to do instead.

Woman looking out at a city.
Warren Wong on Unsplash

Graduate students are constantly under a barrage of stress from a variety of sources: teaching, grant deadlines, course work, research, writing, among others. While there may be some discipline-specific features of stress, its negative impact on grad students’ mental and physical health is universal. (These effects can be compounded by another widely experienced factor, imposter syndrome.) 

Over time, the stresses and doubts that come with the territory of graduate school can lead students to hold paralyzing and unhealthy deeply held beliefs. In the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, these beliefs are called “negative automatic thoughts,” or cognitive distortions.

Negative automatic thoughts (NATs) can take a variety of forms but have several hallmarks in common:

  • They feature you in the position of primary responsibility, even when the actual situation may be out of your control.
  • They are self-sabotaging and can be self-fulfilling. Thus, for example, a thought that boils down to “I’m going to fail no matter what” can cause someone to feel trapped.
  • They are uninvited and can feel relentless or impossible to turn off.
  • They are believable. Whatever is going on in a person’s life is likely forming the basis of the automatic thought in question. People tend to view NATs as believable because there is “evidence” that they can observe, whether or not they are objectively interpreting that evidence. For example, getting feedback on a proposal may feed into the negative automatic thought that, “I’m a horrible writer, how could I ever expect to pass my qualifying exam/get published/file my dissertation.”
  • They are biased, which is potentially the most important hallmark. NATs do not accurately represent reality and exclude contradictory evidence. The ‘horrible writer’ thought from above may not take into account the good feedback you have received from a reviewer. And it ignores all of your previous accomplishments from getting into graduate school to prior success with writing assignments and projects.

Even if you know these general characteristics, it can be difficult to identify specific thoughts as NATs (especially if you’re the one experiencing them). Most NATs that graduate students experience fall into a handful of broad categories:

  • All or nothing
    There are no shades of gray: something is done either perfectly or horribly.
    “This experiment didn’t work again. I’m a miserable scientist.”
  • Not seeing the whole picture/Focusing on the negative
    The person focuses only on the negatives, ignoring anything else.
    “I can’t believe I sent that paper to my advisor, look at all the changes they want me to make.” (This despite the fact that the adviser gave positive feedback as well)
  • Taking it personally
    The person assumes responsibility for bad outcomes, even when they had little to no control over a situation.
    “The department is losing funding because I didn’t do enough to bring in more.”
  • Mind reading
    The person automatically thinks other people regard them negatively.
    “Everyone thinks I’m the joke of the department.”
  • Fortune telling
    The person acts as if negative expectations will become reality.
    “If I present my work at a conference, someone will undoubtedly find a flaw.”
  • Catastrophizing
    A situation is interpreted as disastrous and broad in its resulting effects.
    “If this idea doesn’t work out, I’ll fail as a graduate student and will have to drop out of the program.”

While these are just some of the examples, we hope they will help you start to identify negative automatic thoughts you may be experiencing.

It is also important to recognize the role that imposter syndrome can play in perpetuating some of these negative effects, in that someone who starts with less confidence in their abilities can have that lack of confidence reinforced by NATs. An example of a perpetuating internal dialogue could be:

“…Look what everyone else is accomplishing while I’m just barely able to keep my head above water… Even if I was able to make any progress on my project, I’m sure someone will take one look at it and tear it to shreds because I overlooked something…There’s no way I can make a dissertation out of this, and even if I could, I’m such an awful writer no one should see it, especially not my advisor… Nothing is working now, and nothing will come together in time for me to actually graduate…”

The danger of negative automatic thoughts is that they can become part of a cycle in which a thought causes someone to do something (or not do anything) that then leads to more negative thoughts. For example, if someone is afraid to meet with their advisor to discuss a project because they are caught in any of the traps described above, they cut themselves off from helpful input on a project, which in turn makes them feel even further behind than they want to be, which in turn leads to more negative thoughts.

If you have had or are experiencing the negative automatic thoughts described above, know that there are ways to deal with them. The first step is to become aware of what you’re experiencing. Meeting with a counselor trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) be a helpful second step. CBT works by connecting an individual’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to reveal underlying core beliefs, helping individuals to reframe how they interpret the stimulants that trigger the NATs. CBT has been used to help people deal with negative automatic thoughts in a wide range of contexts including anxiety, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, and stuttering.

If you’re interested in addressing your negative thoughts, then be sure to avail yourself of the services available to you while you’re at Cal.

Additional resources:

NATs are common in graduate students. While they should be taken seriously, they can be managed with the tools provided by a counseling professional and other resources on campus. Taking these steps can help us alleviate some of the stress we experience on a daily basis. 


Mark Stepaniak is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cell biology, and a Professional Development Liaison (PDL) with the Graduate Division.


Categories: December 2019, Student Life