Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) are negative thoughts that are rooted in beliefs, controlled by cognitive bias (being bias in your thinking) and can be linked to past experiences.
They are automatic in that they become your natural response to certain situations, events, or thoughts pertaining to a situation or event (imagining future events).
What Causes ANTs
ANTs act as a sort of protective system to shield you from repeating past negative events.
When a negative event happens, your mind creates certain judgments around the event that will act to prevent the event from occurring again.
The problem is, these judgments can impact your life and cause problems because they aren’t based on present reality but instead a past perception of events.
Over time, these ANTs create neural pathways in the brain and these ways of thinking have an effect on our emotions, causing us to feel more stressed, depressed, anxious, etc.. (think fight or flight).
Types of Automatic Negative Thoughts
There are 6 main types of Automatic Negative Thoughts:
1. All or Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking means thinking in extreme absolutes. In other words, thinking that everything is either black or white, with no room in the middle.
When adversity strikes, the response is extreme: either everything is lost/ruined, or everything’s ok.
The problem is that you’re not seeing the middle ground and it’s not a very realistic approach to experiencing life.
Labeling means to place absolute labels on oneself.
Should you fail a test or experience rejection, you might automatically label yourself as a “loser” or a “failure”.
This type of thinking is unhelpful because when you place a label on something, you claim to know what that thing is without allowing any room for opinion. Failing one test doesn’t make you a failure in totality but if you label yourself as something, you will tend to believe that with your mind and body and this can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
3. Thinking with your feelings
Our feelings can be powerful, and so when we are overtaken by strong emotions this can lead us to think in certain ways.
Recognizing that feelings come and go and that what they tell you about the event or situation isn’t fact is important for reducing automatic negative thoughts.
An example of thinking with your feelings is:
- “I feel stupid” (any statement that starts with “I feel”)
Blaming others for the circumstances in your life is also a common automatic negative thought. It deflects personal responsibility away from yourself and onto a perceived “other”.
Thinking in this way disempowers us because we always feel like the victim instead of taking charge of what we can control.
This type of ANT is self-defeating because we’re always predicting that a future event or situation will end badly, so what’s the point?
With this type of thinking, we are stopping ourselves before we even get started because we assume that we know how the future will go.
6. Mind Reading
Mind-reading as an automatic negative thought means you think you know what other people are thinking about you. Usually, you generalize the worst and ultimately assume that nobody likes you.
This way of generalizing can be very harmful as it can lead to self-isolation which can have a detrimental impact on your interpersonal relationships and your work-life.
Examples of this are:
- “My co-worker doesn’t really like me”
- “My boss doesn’t respect me”
How to stop automatic negative thoughts
ANTs can be pervasive and can seriously cripple your life if you don’t know how to deal with them. Luckily there are some steps you can take to turn them around and start taking control of your thoughts and your life.
1. Identify the ANT
The first step in stopping automatic negative thoughts is to recognize them when they happen.
By noticing when you’re falling into one of the types of ANTs above, you de-personalize them and can work with them more objectively.
2. Reframe the Thoughts
When you notice yourself experiencing an ANT, reframe the thought into something more positive.
This has been shown to blunt the negative thought and lead to more feelings of happiness and purpose.
You can use a tool to help you with this. On a blank piece of paper, draw 3 columns:
|What is the negative thought?||What event/situation triggered the thought?||How can you reframe the negative thought into a positive one?|
|“They won’t like me”||Going into a social setting like a bar.||“I am a good person and I expect to have a good time”|
3. Practice Meditation
Practicing meditation can elevate our self-awareness which can make noticing when we have these unhelpful thoughts easier. Since noticing negative thoughts is the first step, meditation should be considered an important tool in supporting feelings of contentment.
There are other benefits of meditation, too, apart from greater self-awareness. Meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, a lower heart rate, and an increase in feel-good hormones.
4. Find Professional Help
Sometimes it can be overwhelming or overly challenging to stop automatic negative thoughts on their own.
For greater perspective and support, turning to a professional can help get the ball rolling and to provide you with some useful tools to make turning negative thoughts into positive ones easier and more automatic.
Automatic Negative Thoughts can be sneaky, and if we’re not careful, they can take over our lives and lead to bigger problems.
To counteract ANTs, you first need to identify them, then, you can reframe them into something more positive. With enough practice, you will begin to catch the negative thoughts before they grow out of control and begin to feel better by thinking more positively.