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Published on October 23, 2018

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 July 18, 2019

What Makes People Happy? 20 Secrets of “Always Happy” People

What Makes People Happy? 20 Secrets of “Always Happy” People

Some people just seem to float through life with a relentless sense of happiness – through the toughest of times, they’re unfazed and aloof, stopping to smell the roses and drinking out of a glass half full.

They may not have much to be happy about, but the simplicity behind that fact itself may make them happy.

It’s all a matter of perspective, conscious effort and self-awareness. Listed below are a number of reasons why some people are always happy.

1. They Manage Their Expectations

They’re not crushed when they don’t get what they want – or misled into expecting to get the most out of every situation. They approach every situation pragmatically, hoping for the best but being prepared for the worst.

2. They Don’t Set Unrealistic Standards

Similar to the last point, they don’t live their lives in a constant pursuit towards impossible visions of perfection, only to always find themselves falling short of what they want.

3. They Don’t Take Anything for Granted

Happiness rests with feeling fulfilled – those who fail to stop and appreciate what they have every now and again will never experience true fulfillment.

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4. They’re Not Materialistic

There are arguing viewpoints on whether or not money can really buy happiness; if it can, then we know from experience that we can never be satisfied because there will always be something newer or better that we want. Who has ever had enough money?

5. They Don’t Dwell

They don’t sweat the small things or waste time worrying about things that don’t really matter at the end of the day. They don’t let negative thoughts latch onto them and drain them or distract them. Life’s too short to worry.

6. They Care About Themselves First

They’re independent, care for themselves and understand that they must put their needs first in order to accommodate the needs of others.

They indulge, aim to get what they want, make time for themselves and are extremely self-reliant.

7. They Enjoy the Little Things

They stop to smell the roses. They’re accustomed to find serenity when it’s available, to welcome entertainment or a stimulating discussion with a stranger when it crosses their path. They don’t overlook the small things in life that can be just as important.

8. They Can Adapt

They’re not afraid of change and they work to make the most out of new circumstances, good or bad. They thrive under pressure, are not overwhelmed easily and always embrace a change of pace.

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9. They Experiment

They try new things, experience new flavors and never shy away from something they have yet to experience. They never order twice from the same menu.

10. They Take Their Time

They don’t unnecessarily rush through life. They work on their own schedule to the extent that they can and maneuver through life at their own relaxing pace.

11. They Employ Different Perspectives

They’re not stuck in one perspective; a loss can result in a new opportunity, hitting rock bottom can mean that there’s no where to go but up.

12. They Seek to Learn

Their constant pursuit of knowledge keeps them inspired and interested in life. They cherish information and are on a life-long quest to learn as much as they can.

13. They Always Have a Plan

They don’t find themselves drifting without purpose. When something doesn’t go as planned, they have a plan for every letter in the alphabet to fall back on.

14. They Give Respect to Get It

They are respectful and, in turn, are seen as respectable; the respect they exude earns them the respect they deserve.

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15. They Consider Every Opportunity

They always have their eyes open for a new road, a new avenue worth exploring. They know how to recognize opportune moments and pounce on them to make the most of every situation. Success is inevitable for them.

16. They Always Seek to Improve

Perpetual self-improvement is the key towards their ongoing thirst for success. Whatever it is they do, they take pride in getting better and better, from social interactions to mundane tasks. Their pursuit at being the best eventually materializes.

17. They Don’t Take Life Too Seriously

They’re not ones to get offended easily over-analyze or complicate matters. They laugh at their own faults and misfortunes.

18. They Live in the Moment

They don’t live for tomorrow or dwell on what may have happened yesterday. Every day is a new opportunity, a new chapter. They live in the now, and in doing so, get the most out of every moment.

You can learn how to do so too: How to Live in the Moment and Stop Worrying About the Past or Future

19. They Say Yes

Much more often than they say no. They don’t have to be badgered to go out, don’t shy away from new opportunities or anything that may seem inconvenient.

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20. They’re Self-Aware

Most important, they’re wholly aware of themselves. They self-reflect and are conscious of their states of mind. If somethings bothering them, they fix it.

We’re all susceptible to feeling down every now and again, but we are all equipped with the necessary solutions that just have to be discovered.

Lack of confidence, inability to feel fulfilled, and susceptibility to stress are all matters that can be controlled through the way we handle our lives and perceive our circumstances.

Learn about How Self-Reflection Gives You a Happier and More Successful Life.

Final Thoughts

The main philosophy employed by the happiest includes the idea that life’s simply too short: life’s too short to let things get you down, to take things for granted, to pursue absolute and unrealistic perfection.

For some, employing these characteristics is a second nature – they do it without knowing. For others, a conscious effort must be put forth every now and again. Self-Awareness is key.

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Featured photo credit: Charles Postiaux via unsplash.com

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