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Automatic thoughts as predictors of Turkish University students' state anxiety.

Anxiety involves such affective elements as sadness, discomfort, fear, failure, perceived incapability, uncertainty, expectations of negative outcome, and expectations of being negatively judged by others. There can also be a range of physical symptoms as labored breathing, perspiring, breathing disorders, tension, increased speed of heart, short temper, lower back pain, stomachaches, diarrhea or constipation, shivering, chills in the fingers and toes, continuous fatigue, constant headaches, and tension in cervical muscles (Cuceloglu, 1999). Fear and anxiety differ from one another in terms of source, intensity, and duration. When experiencing fear, the source is obvious and the intensity of affective and physical symptoms is high but the duration is short-lived. Spielberger's (1966) Two-factor Anxiety Theory divides anxiety into two types, the first of which is State Anxiety, or the subjective fear felt by an individual caused by the stressful situation he/she is in. When considered physiologically, such physical changes as perspiring, going pale, flushing, and shivering caused by stimulation of the autonomic nervous system are indicators of an individual's tension and discomfort. State anxiety increases when the amount of stress is high and then decreases when the stress disappears. Spielberger's second anxiety type is Trait Anxiety or feelings of discontent and sadness caused by the fact that a situation which could be considered to be neutral according to objective criteria is perceived by an individual as being dangerous or potentially threatening. Fear and uneasiness caused by being in dangerous situations are accepted as being a temporary and ordinary type of anxiety that will be experienced by the individual. Trait anxiety, by contrast, does not relate directly to the situation an individual is in because it is personality-based. Individuals with high levels of trait anxiety are expected to display state reactions under pressure more quickly and more often compared to those with lower levels (Oner & LeCompte, 1983).

Anxiety and learning experiences have been found to be correlated. When an individual is anxious, his/her general arousal is high. Excessive arousal decreases the individual's ability to concentrate on and understand the task he/she is working on. Level of academic aptitude plays an important role in the relationship between anxiety and learning ability or academic achievement. While experiencing high anxiety has not been found to affect the academic achievement of students with either very low or high academic aptitude, it has been found to have an adverse effect on the academic achievement of students with average academic aptitude levels (Cuceloglu, 1999; cited in Morgan, 1999; Spielberger, 1962). Correlations have been found between anxiety and psychological symptoms as well, especially between depression and anxiety (Clark, Steer, & Beck, 1994; Farmer, 1998). When the factors that contribute to anxiety have been determined and controlled, the negative outcomes of anxiety can be avoided.

Factors Leading to Anxiety

Withdrawal of support When an individual becomes distanced from the people with whom he/she affiliates and from whom he/she receives social support (such as family members, relatives, friends, teachers), this causes the individual to feel anxiety (Cuceloglu, 1999).

Expectation of negative outcome or sense of threat Threat can be defined as any expectation of loss which an individual may face. The loss is an outcome not desired by the individual. The increasing value of the potential loss increases the sense of threat. Accordingly, efforts for adaptation and coping with loss become more intense. Ways of adapting to the threat include removing it or decreasing the expected loss. When the threat is considered in terms of the expectation of future loss, it is formed in accordance with an individual's interpretation of the current situation. In threat assessment, the individual's motivation pattern, beliefs about the environment, and ability to control the threat are determining factors. Assessment is a system formed mainly as a product of past experiences. In order for an individual to perceive the threat, he/she must grasp the importance of clues about the situation. At that point, threat assessment is generally about realistic and objective dangers (Cuceloglu, 1999; Lazarus, 1976).

Inner conflict Left unsolved either consciously or unconsciously, inner conflicts lead to stress. Conflict presents itself when two or more incompatible motivation affect the individual at the same time (Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, Bem, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1996; Cuceloglu, 1999). The conflict between what an individual believes in and how he/she behaves can cause anxiety and tension (Cuceloglu). Uncertainty Not knowing what will happen in the future is one of the key causes of anxiety. Knowing that bad things will occur has been found to be preferred to not having any knowledge of what will happen at all (Cuceloglu, 1999).

Imbalance between skill and challenge When an individual's skill level is not adequate to meet the level of difficulty he/she encounters, then he/she will experience anxiety (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Method of perception and interpretation regarding a situation According to Beck (1967-1976) and Ellis (1975), representatives of the cognitive behavioral approach, the key factors leading to symptoms of stress are irrational and unrealistic thoughts and belief systems (cited in Morris, 2002). Despite encountering identical stimuli or stressors, some people develop psychological symptoms like anxiety and depression while others do not. According to Beck, Rush, Shaw, and Emery (1979), the key distinctive factor between those people is maladaptive cognition. Negative automatic thoughts are an example of maladaptive cognition.

Beck's Cognitive Theory/Therapy Model

The variable automatic thoughts, which is studied in this paper in relation to state anxiety, is a concept coined by Beck.

According to Beck et al. (1979), the principal source of an individual's emotions and behaviors is his/her perspective on himself/herself, the world, and the future; that is the individual's system of thought or belief. According to the cognitive model, the common characteristics among psychological disorders are distorted or dysfunctional beliefs and thoughts, and systematic errors in data processing. Realistic evaluation and transformation of thoughts, by contrast, lead to emotional and behavioral improvements. Permanent recovery results from the transformation of an individual's underlying dysfunctional beliefs into a functional and rational structure and method of operation (Savasir & Batur, 1998; Turkcapar, 2004-2005).

Automatic thoughts Thoughts that appear quickly and automatically without preplanning or judgment by an individual are automatic. These can be words or images that cross the mind and fall within the top level of cognition. Sometimes, these thoughts are formed so rapidly that people are not consciously aware of them. Automatic thoughts originate from the individual's more permanent beliefs (Savasir & Batur, 1998; Turkcapar, 2004-2005).

Fundamental beliefs Beginning during the years of childhood, human beings develop beliefs about themselves, others, and the world. Fundamental beliefs are among the most deep-rooted of individuals' beliefs; and are rigid and very general. These beliefs are so deeply held that often they cannot be expressed in words and are accepted by the individual as absolute truth. An example would be an individual who believes that he/she needs approval from others for every action in order to feel valuable (Savasir & Batur, 1998). Negative beliefs or schemas are always present in the unconscious and are activated by stressful events (Ashby, 2007). There are intermediate beliefs that exist between these fundamental beliefs and automatic thoughts (Turkcapar, 2004-2005).

Intermediate beliefs From fundamental beliefs, generally formed during childhood, intermediate beliefs develop throughout the life of the individual. These consist of attitudes, rules, and assumptions (Turkcapar, 2004-2005). For example, "Being incapable is a disaster" (attitude), "I must always work till the end of the task" (rules/expectations), "Only if I work excessively hard can I achieve things which other people can do with ease" (assumption). Intermediate beliefs have an influence on the individual's perception of any given situation, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

During the process of cognitive therapy the primary focus is on automatic thoughts, which exist in the consciousness. Individuals are given instruction on how to control their automatic thoughts and also shown how these thoughts affect their emotions and behaviors. When dysfunctional beliefs have been replaced with realistic and functional ones, recurrence of psychological syndromes through the process of therapy may be prevented (Savasir & Batur, 1998).

An individual's perception of a specific situation is affected by his/her underlying beliefs, expressed as situational automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts, in turn, affect the individual's emotions, behaviors, and physiological responses. Figure 1 provides an example of this interaction.


A review of the relevant literature suggests that automatic thoughts and psychological symptoms are correlated. Meaningful correlations were found between negative automatic thoughts, measured using the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ; Hollon & Kendall, 1980), and anxiety (Calvete & Connor-Smith, 2005; Eremsoy, Celimli, & Gencoz, 2005; Hollon & Kendall, 1980; Joseph, 1994), substance abuse (Hill, Oei, & Hill, 1989), physical symptoms (Aydin, 1997), and depression (Eremsoy et al., 2005; Sahin & Sahin, 1992; Stiles, Schroeder, & Johansen, 1993). In the current study the aim was to examine the relationship between automatic thoughts and state anxiety of Turkish university students. Considering the negative outcomes of experiencing anxiety because it leads to stress, and because young adults are the most productive section of Turkish society (Turkish Ministry of Health, 2006), this study is of great importance for identifying any problem with anxiety in this group and discovering what precautions can be taken to prevent it.


The research hypothesis for this study was: "Do Turkish university students' automatic thoughts meaningfully predict their state anxiety?" A descriptive method was used to answer the research question.


Participants were 220 fourth-year students (119 females, 101 males) who were attending Mehmet Akif Ersoy University enrolled in the Faculty of Education during the spring term of the 2006-2007 academic year. The sample was selected using the random sampling method.

Research Instruments

Data were collected using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI; Spielberger, Gorsuch, & Lushene, 1970) and Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (ATQ; Hollon & Kendall, 1980). The instruments were implemented during the time that students were preparing for their final examinations.

STAI The State-Trait Anxiety Inventory is a self-report questionnaire aimed at assessing the frequency of certain feelings related to anxiety. The measure consists of two separate scales: state anxiety and trait anxiety. The Turkish adaptation of the STAI was the work of Oner and LeCompte (1974-1977) who established reliability and validity coefficients that were comparable with the original values. In the present study only the state anxiety subscale (STAI-Form TX-1) was utilized (Oner & LeCompte, 1983), this consists of 20 items measured on a Likert-type scale.

ATQ The Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire is aimed at assessing the existence and frequency of negative automatic thoughts. The scale is a reliable and well-validated instrument containing 30 items measured on a Likert-type scale. The Turkish adaptation of the ATQ was completed by Aydin and Aydin (1990) and by Sahin and Sahin (1992; cited in Savasir & Sahin, 1997).

Data Analysis

Firstly, the data were checked for suitability for regression analysis, and no problems were found. Then, correlations between the predicted and predictor variables were analyzed using the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient technique. Finally, simple linear regression analysis was conducted between negative automatic thoughts and state anxiety.


It was found that automatic thoughts significantly predicted state anxiety [R = .625, [R.sup.2] = .391, F = 138.489,p < .001]. A total of 39% of the variance related to state anxiety was explained by students' automatic thoughts.


Results of this study indicate that 39% of the state anxiety experienced by the participants in this study could be predicted by their negative automatic thoughts. This finding is comparable to other findings in related literature (Calvete & Connor-Smith, 2005; Eremsoy et al., 2005; Hollon & Kendall, 1980; Joseph, 1994). Considering the negative outcomes of anxiety, and because young adults are the most productive section of Turkish society and will assume key roles upon completing their university education, it is important to take necessary precautions to decrease any anxiety among Turkish university students. Psychological services for students attending the above university and other similar universities in Turkey could be established. In particular, a comprehensive psychological counseling and guidance center could be founded. A psychological counselor with a master's degree or better could be appointed to such a center. Arrangements could be made to provide a minimum of 200 students with a psychological counselor. These experts would be able to provide group counseling services in order to transform thought systems from dysfunctional to functional. To achieve this, package programs for group counseling prepared on the basis of Beck's cognitive theory could be used. Psychological counseling specialists at the university could teach the students effective learning methods, skills to cope with test anxiety, and positive thinking regarding their examinations. Such psychological services could also contribute to enabling the students to perform to the best of their ability in examinations. Furthermore, because these students will become teachers, they would be better qualified to teach their students.

DOI 10.2224/sbp.2009.37.8.1065

Appreciation is due to anonymous reviewers.


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Assistant Professor Kamile Bahar Aydin, PhD, Department of Educational Sciences, Faculty of Education, Mehmet Akif Ersoy University, Turkey.

Please address correspondence and reprint requests to: Assistant Professor Kamile Bahar Aydin, PhD, Department of Educational Sciences, Faculty of Education, Mehmet Akif Ersoy University, Turkey. Phone: +90-248-212-2700; Fax: +90-248-212-2718; Email:
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Author:Aydin, Kamile Bahar
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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