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How to Stop Automatic Negative Thoughts When You’re Overwhelmed

How to Stop Automatic Negative Thoughts When You’re Overwhelmed

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.

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.[1]

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.

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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.

2 Labelling

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.

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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.”

5 Fortune-telling

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?”

6. Mind-reading

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.

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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.[2]

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:

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  • 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.

Conclusion

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

Reference

More by this author

Margaret Olatunbosun

Creative coach who teaches high-achievers how to thrive at the intersection of creativity, passion, and profit.

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Last Updated on November 5, 2019

12 Powerful Habits of a Lifelong Learner

12 Powerful Habits of a Lifelong Learner

Formal education is something everyone has to go through to a certain degree, and the knowledge it offers isn’t always that practical in real life. Life long learning is how you improve as a person, bit by bit and day by day.

Life long learners recognize the importance and joy of growth so they never settle for what they currently know and always seek for improvement.

Here are 12 habits of people who value lifelong learning have in common – see how many of them you recognize in yourself.

1. They Read on a Daily Basis

Whatever problem or dilemma you currently face, there’s definitely at least one decent book that discusses it and presents a variety of solutions.

Reading is a great way to open up new horizons, train your brain and revolutionize your life. I can’t even count how many times books completely transformed the way I view the world, and it’s always a change for the better. Through reading, you can connect with successful people and learn from the lessons they share.

Life long learners love to get lost in books and do it regularly. Bill Gates knows that reading matters a lot; on his personal blog, he reviews plenty of game-changing books.

Due to technology, you can access a bookshelf of the wealthiest entrepreneur on this planet.

2. They Attend Various Courses

Whether it’s online or offline, there are countless courses you can participate in without spending a dime on it. These are great opportunities to connect with clever and like-minded people and learn from them.

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Because of the advanced technology, you can now gain knowledge from online programs, starting from coding through self-improvement to programs from top universities.

There are literally endless ways to thrive. What life long learners have in common is squeezing as much as possible out of these opportunities.

3. They Actively Seek Opportunities to Grow

Instead of spending your free time laying on the couch and watching TV, you prefer doing something creative and practical. You know every wasted minute is gone forever.

That’s why you’d rather practice your language skills with a native-speaker you’ve met, engage in local meet up or attend a class that teaches something you always wanted to learn.

Life long learners stay up-to-date with growth opportunities in their areas and participate in them frequently.

4. They Take Care of Their Bodies

“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” — John F. Kennedy

A clever mind combined with a body in a great condition is the best asset you can have. Our bodies were designed to run, walk, jump, swim, lift and much more. Leading a sedentary lifestyle harms both your physical and mental sphere.

Life long learners know the body is your temple. In order to make it flourish for as long as possible, they train regularly, move a lot and eat healthy.

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5. They Have Diverse Passions

Among Steve Jobs’ wise quotes, there’s one I like especially. It’s about connecting the dots:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” — Steve Jobs

Each dot is some event or skill in your life, and it’s only when you go through these elements that you know how to combine them into something great.

Having a variety of passions indicates that you love to progress. By practicing different skills, you give yourself an advantage over the rest of the people. During hard times, you are more likely to to act intelligently and solve your problems with less effort.

6. They Love Making Progress

If behind the efforts, there is passion and a deep desire to grow, your chances of success are way higher, compared to when you are forced to learn.

Life long learners love to experience the constant growth and improvement. The breakthrough moments help them to notice the impressive change that took place because of the learning process. Any milestone serves as a driving force for further headway.

7. They Challenge Themselves with Specific Goals

In order to keep growing, you clearly define your goals. Smart goal setting is one of the tools to ensure constant growth.

Since you love challenges, a difficult goal doesn’t scare you. Quite the opposite, it keeps you motivated and engaged.

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Research showed that precise and ambitious goals increase the performance of an individual. As we already agreed, life long learners are people who care about their performance, hence they never stop improving.

8. They Embrace Change

A complete change can lead to incredible results. This is especially visible on the example of successful companies.

Oftentimes, it’s that transformation which created space for their so-called overnight success. Twitter was originally created as an internal service to serve Odeo employees. Currently, it has over 300 million monthly active users and is considered the second biggest social network.

As a life long learner, you know a change can lead to extraordinary results so you welcome it and stay open minded about making a shift.

9. They Believe It’s Never Too Late to Start Something

Some people tend to think after a certain age, they are no longer allowed to start something and become successful. The truth is, it’s just a lame excuse not to leave the comfort zone.

Opposite to common misconceptions, there’s no wrong age to begin something. Henry Ford was 45 when he invented the Ford Model T car, which is considered as the first affordable automobile.

Sure, for some domains like becoming a professional athlete, starting early is required. However, to learn and improve for its own sake, you are never too old.

10. Their Attitude to Getting Better Is Contagious

“We now accept the fact that learning is a life long process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.” — Peter Drucker

There’s nothing better than to see your surroundings getting involved in what you actively participate in. Oftentimes, the best way to achieve that is to inspire them and be the example. As Gandhi would say, you need to be the change you want to see in the world.

As a life long learner, you are extremely passionate about the constant growth and people around you can sense that positive attitude. As a result, they start acting similarly.

11. They Leave Their Comfort Zone

Is it really better to step out of your comfort zone? The answer is always yes.

You always embrace discomfort as you know the path to success leads through hardship and countless obstacles. Instead of being afraid of facing them, you challenge yourself to overcome more and more difficult handicaps.

Every time you get out of your comfort zone, regardless whether you win or fail, you learn something new. That’s the part you love the most!

12. They Never Settle Down

“Knowledge is exploding, so you need to commit yourself to a plan for life long learning.” — Don Tapscott

A sense of being clever enough is something you don’t experience. Without a doubt, you appreciate what you already know, but that’s never a reason to stop. You just know once you stop learning, you lose the amazing privilege humans have, namely an ability to a never-ending intellectual development.

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Featured photo credit: Christin Hume via unsplash.com

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