Imagine these scenarios:
You’re sending out applications to several job openings, and every single response you get is a rejection. You’ve tweaked your resume and hired the best career coaches you could afford. You’ve attended networking events and your wallet is bursting full of business cards. Yet you can’t seem to get a call back for an interview. These rejections keep replaying in your head so you call yourself a failure. You call yourself a loser and quit searching.
Maybe you suffered from a bad break up when you were younger. You were so hurt that you vowed to protect your heart, never letting anyone get close to you again. But now? You’re finding it hard to trust people. You can’t seem to hold a conversation because you have several negative thoughts running through your mind. What if I get cheated on again? What if he turns out to be what I’m running away from? I’ll never find love again.
These thoughts are called automatic negative thoughts or better known as ANTs, and this article will show you how to stop them when you’re overwhelmed.
Table of Contents
What are automatic negative thoughts (ANTs)?
Automatic negative thoughts refer to beliefs you hold about yourself, inference from previous events, and can be influenced by cognitive bias.
Although research into automatic negative thoughts began as early as the 1960s when its effects on depression were studied by Dr. Aaron Beck, it was later popularized by Dr. Daniel Amen in the last few years.
According to Dr. Amen, when you think negative thoughts, your brain releases chemical and electrical signals that activate your limbic system. Over time, a surplus of negative thoughts burdens your limbic system which causes these chemical transmissions to establish a neural pathway in the brain. When this happens, you’re bound to experience more moodiness, irritability, anxiety, and depression.
Why some experience these negative thoughts more than others
In a way, ANTs can be helpful. Here’s what I mean.
When you experience an emotionally grueling event, your mind develops structures in place to protect you from getting hurt or heartbroken. These automatic negative thoughts are a way of your mind trying to shield you from harm before it actually happens (or lessen its impact when it happens).
The problem, however, is when these thoughts have become so dominant that they overtake your life.
With several stressors in your life, it’s relatively easy to slip into a spiral of anxiety and depression, especially if you aren’t paying attention to the changes going on in your body.
Often times, ANTs manifest when these negatively charged thoughts translate themselves into corresponding emotions, leading to physical changes in the body. An example is the body’s response to the fight or flight response.
Only in the case of ANTs, you are trapped. You experience these symptoms over and over again as several negative thoughts run through your mind and you’re unable to get out of the cycle.
But to stop these ANTs, we need to identify what they are in order to reconstruct a healthy concept of self.
How to spot the different types of ANTs
Here’re the signs of 6 types of ANTs:
1 All or nothing thinking
If your thoughts are always in extreme absolutes, there is a high chance that you are susceptible to automatic negative thoughts.
The all or nothing thinker only reasons in black and white with no middle ground. So, when the first wave of adversity hits, the first inclination would be to figure out what’s wrong or right.
With automatic negative thoughts, you’re unable to see the silver lining in situations.
Examples of “all or nothing” statements include:
- I won’t be able to pass this class. I failed my first test yesterday.
- I’m so weak.
Remember the opening example of the job seeker who is frustrated about the rejections and gave up? The perfect example of labelling is realized when you call yourself names or terms that carry negative connotations. When this happens, your brain takes these signals and run with it, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Examples of labeling statements include:
- “I’m such a loser.”
- “I’m a failure.”
The unintended consequence is that you begin to feel like a loser even though you’re not. Your body has been primed to respond to negative thoughts and so it responds accordingly.
3 Thinking with your feelings
The automatic negative thought is more common than most people think and usually masquerades itself by presenting itself as truth.
You never question this reasoning, rather, you listen to your negative thought by default. In the example of the hurt person who is trying to fall in love again, This ANT shows up by making negative conclusions about a habit, behavior, or goal.
Examples of statement include:
- “I feel like a moron.”
4. The blame game
Known as the most harmful ANT, people who suffer from this negative thought are prone to deflecting personal responsibility for their actions on others. To them, their problems are never the results of their own actions (or inaction).
There is always someone who tends to gain from their misfortune. They are powerless, always at the mercy of someone or something and can never take control of their lives.
If you have this automatic negative thought playing on repeat in your brain, it could sound like:
- “It’s your fault that I didn’t get the promotion.”
- “It’s all because of you that I’m so out of shape.”
Fortune tellers are usually several steps ahead of their life goals and ambition. But often times, this is negative. Here, you are always predicting the worst possible outcome for yourself.
There is never anything positive that can come from any situation because you are constantly drawing from a previous event.
A jaded job seeker would make statements like:
- “I’ll never get the job anyway. What’s the point?”
Like the previous ANT, this negative thinking occurs when you think you know exactly the cause of someone’s behavior towards you. You’re sure that they can’t be thinking positive things about you, don’t want to see you succeed, or hate you in general.
Mind-reading, when unstopped, can lead to isolation because you have concluded that no one is ever going to be kind to you.
Examples of mind-reading statements include:
- “My boss hates me.”
- “My colleagues don’t respect me as the group leader.”
These negative thoughts can become so pervasive that they cripple your interpersonal relationships and professional life. Luckily, there are ways to stop them.
How to stop automatic negative thoughts
Here are some steps to take to stop automatic negative thoughts when you’re overwhelmed:
1. Identify the ANT you’re dealing with before you move forward.
The first step to take to solve a problem is to identify that the problem exists in the first place. Then, in the case of ANT, it’s imperative that you understand the specific patterns or triggers that lead you down the negative spiral of anxiety and depression.
Are you constantly shifting blame to others? Do you always make predictions about how people see you and re-run these thoughts on a regular basis? Have you created negative labels for yourself thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Start from there. Identify the types of ANTs that keep repeating themselves in your mind before you move forward to tame them.
2. Confront these negative thoughts with rebuttals (positive thoughts). Then speak them back to yourself.
If the opposite of negative thinking is positive thinking, then stopping ANTs is as easy as reframing these thoughts into positive ones to stop the cycle of negativity.
According to researchers, positive automatic thoughts have been shown to counteract and blunt the effects of negative automatic thoughts and stress in general. People with higher levels of positive automatic thoughts were also found to see their lives as more meaningful and full of happiness.
But it doesn’t end there. Take this step further by taking out a blank sheet of paper:
In one column, write out the negative automatic thoughts that are constantly plaguing you. In another column next to it, write out the event or situation that triggered it. Then in a third column, reconstruct this thought from a negative one into a positive one.
Here’s an example of reframing an ANT:
- Old thought: “I’ll never get a job. It’s pointless.”
- New thought: “Getting my dream career takes effort and strategy. I’ll continue to work hard.”
3. Practice mindfulness and/or meditation
Ever heard of the saying that a busy mind is a devil’s workshop? The idea is that automatic negative thoughts by nature invade the mind. The feelings they leave in their wake are akin to anxiety and panic disorders in most people. So, how can you quieten the mind?
Mindfulness and/or meditation is an age-old practice that doesn’t only quieten an erratic mind, its effects on lowering the heart rate, blood pressure, and elevating your feel-good hormones have been well-documented by researchers.
As a beginner, you may want to try out this Simple Guide to Mindfulness for Beginners.
4. Seek professional help
Sometimes, getting rid of automatic negative thoughts when you’re overwhelmed is as easy as seeking professional help. You need to realize that you can’t do it alone, and that you need the support of others.
The support could be in form of cognitive behavior therapy or some other kind of therapy approved by your mental health professional. Some of these interventions can be done in private settings while others are best completed in group settings.
All in all, you are in charge of your own life and happiness.
In conclusion, automatic negative thoughts can be crushed.
But the only way is to identify them early enough, challenge them, and replace them with an abundance of positive thoughts as you live your daily life
Featured photo credit: Randy Jacob via unsplash.com
|||^||Amen Clinic: The Number One Habit to Develop in Order to Feel More Positive|
|||^||Positive Psychology Program. Challenging Negative Automatic Thoughts: Examples + Worksheets (PDF)|