Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-R)

Negative thoughts form the roots of many of our problems. This type of thinking can lead to a mood disorder with really significant limitations. Therefore, it's important to be able to detect it before it starts to be dangerous. In this article, we're going to explore an instrument for this specific purpose.
Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-R)
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 16 June, 2023

Do you often have negative thoughts? The kinds that demolish your hopes and dampen your spirits. Everyone has them. They make it seem like there’s a horror movie writer living inside you who occasionally takes control and creates the most distressing mental plots. However, you probably usually manage to reformulate them and employ a more realistic and healthier approach.

But, in recent years a worrying reality has been observed. Increasingly more people have been experiencing debilitating and adverse thoughts. They’re automatic, ruminating, and exhausting patterns of thinking that can lay the foundations for many mental health problems.

Instead of letting them pass and not giving them any importance, some of us allow them space and believe them. As a matter of fact, as soon as we validate irrational and catastrophic ideas, we lose control of our lives and find ourselves experiencing persistent discomfort. From a clinical point of view, knowing what a patient’s thoughts are like allows professionals to assess their risk of developing depression.

Numerous instruments have been designed for this purpose. Amongst them, there’s one highly valuable tool that stands out. You can find out about it here.

Automatic cognitions and thoughts are a great risk to our mental health. They can turn into anxiety disorders and depression.

Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ-R)
The automatic thoughts questionnaire (ATQ-R) can be a really useful tool in the clinical evaluation of patients.

Automatic thoughts questionnaire (ATQ-R)

Your thoughts can either be like beacons, helping you solve all your problems or demoralizing burdens. They often irritate you, awaken pain from your past, and make you view the future with feelings of great insecurity. While it’s impossible to always think positively and hopefully, the most important thing is to have control over your thoughts and know how to rationalize them.

As soon as you’re dominated by inaccurate, fatalistic, and irrational perceptions, your mind changes. As shocking as it may seem, increasingly more people have been experiencing these kinds of thoughts in recent years, due to the health crisis, social changes, and economic problems.

The University of Regina (Canada) conducted a study that claims depressive symptoms are significantly correlated with negative automatic thoughts. Therefore, one way of detecting if an individual is at risk of suffering from a mood disorder is by evaluating their thoughts. Tests can be extremely useful in these cases.

The validity we give to our irrational thoughts is a risk factor for developing depression.

A useful tool in psychological therapy

The ATQ-R automatic thoughts questionnaire is an instrument that was developed by the psychologists and researchers, Steven D. Hollon and Phillip C. Kendall. It seeks to detect the thoughts associated with depression. It doesn’t just discern whether or not the individual is experiencing irrational negative thoughts.

In fact, its objective is to identify if the patient gives veracity to their distorted images and thinking. The test draws on psychotherapist, Aaron Beck’s theory on the triad of depression. He claimed that we all run the risk of developing this disorder if three factors occur:

  • Having a negative view of ourselves and interpreting what adversely happens to us
  • Maintaining exhausting and inflexible thought schemas.
  • Experiencing errors of thought. For example, catastrophizing, dichotomous thinking (thinking in black and white), etc.

In these cases, the questionnaire developed by Hollon and Kendall is extremely useful and valid. Indeed, research confirms the importance of attending to thoughts and internal dialogue that people exhibit in clinical settings.

The questionnaire

The automatic thoughts questionnaire (ATQ-R) consists of 30 self-statements that the person must evaluate from 1 to 5 according to how much they identify with them. The questions are statements such as “No one understands me”, “I wish I were somewhere else” or “I know I’ve let people down”.

This series of thoughts that the individual must qualify is organized into four categories, from which the final score will be derived. This score will identify if the individual is at risk of developing or is already exhibiting a depressive disorder. The four categories are:

  • Negative self-concepts and negative expectations.
  • Helplessness.
  • Personal maladjustment and desire for change. The inability to cope with everyday changes and problems.
  • Low self-esteem.

The automatic thoughts questionnaire (ATQ-R) has been updated over the years. It’s a valid instrument for identifying depressogenic cognitions.

Man in psychotherapy receiving the Automatic Thought Questionnaire (ATQ-R)
The automatic thoughts questionnaire (ATQ-R) can also check how an individual is progressing in therapy.

The validity and reliability of the ATQ-R

The ATQ-R was updated by Netemeyer et al., in 2002. According to the scientific literature, it’s a valid and effective instrument. Moreover, its administration is simple and it provides useful indicators when evaluating thoughts associated with depression.

It’s also interesting to note that the questionnaire is a frequent resource both in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and in cognitive behavioral therapy. In fact, it’s not only used to detect the presence of a possible depressive disorder but also allows for the assessment of any changes throughout the psychological treatment.

As we mentioned earlier, the purpose of this test isn’t to assess how many distorted and negative thoughts an individual produces. It seeks to discover if they give veracity to those thoughts. This is the real problem and the one they need to attend to.

Not everything we think is valid, useful, and rational. Therefore, we need to analyze whether everything we tell ourselves is the truth. This will guarantee much of our psychological well-being.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

    • Lindner C, Kotta I, Marschalko EE, Szabo K, Kalcza-Janosi K, Retelsdorf J. Increased Risk Perception, Distress Intolerance and Health Anxiety in Stricter Lockdowns: Self-Control as a Key Protective Factor in Early Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Apr 22;19(9):5098. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19095098. PMID: 35564492; PMCID: PMC9100473.
    • Kendall, P. C., Howard, B. L., & Hays, R. C. (1989). Self-referent speech and psychopathology: The balance of positive and negative thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research13, 583-598. doi: 10.1007/BF01176069
    • Onofrei, A.-G. (2020). The Relationship between Automatic Thoughts, Negative Emotionality and Basic Psychological Needs. Euromentor, 11(3), 117–138.
    • Pereira, I., Matos, A., & Azevedo, A. (2014). Portuguese version of the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire – Revised: Relation with depressive symptomatology in adolescents. Psicologia, Saúde & Doenças15, 37-47. doi:10.15309/14psd150105

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.