Written by Carol Musser
Changing Negative Thoughts
Today, I hope to give you resources to help you reduce stress from your mind created by Automatic Negative Thoughts, more commonly called ANTs. These thoughts are sneaky and show up uninvited and cause stress and anxiety to our lives. Our thoughts are powerful, and we need discernment to assess what is true or what is false in these thoughts.
According to clinical neuroscientist, board certified psychiatrist, brain imaging expert, Dr. Daniel G. Amen, often, it is your AUTOMATIC NEGATIVE THOUGHTS (ANTs) that are the root of your stress. Yes, what we think is powerful! And unfortunately, our thoughts lie – they lie a lot. Feb 26, 2015
Here are a few examples of how disturbing ANTs run amok in our minds:
• Black & White thinking – If I’m not perfect I have failed
• Mental Filter – Noticing all your failures not seeing your successes
• Jumping to conclusions – Mind reading (imagining what others are thinking or Fortune Telling (predicating the future)
• Emotional Reasoning – assuming that because we feel a certain way what we think must be true
• Labelling – assigning labels to ourselves and other people
• Over-generalizing – seeing a pattern based on a single event, or forming overly broad conclusions
• Disqualifying the positive – Discounting the good things that have happened or that you have done for some reason or another
• Catastrophising or minimization – Blowing things out of proportion or inappropriately shrinking something to make it seem less important
• Should or Must – Using critical words like ‘should,’ ‘must,’ or ‘ought’ can make us feel guilty, or like we have already failed. If we apply ‘shoulds’ to other people the result is often frustration.
• Personalization – Blaming yourself or taking responsibility for something that wasn’t completely your fault. Conversely, blaming other people for something that was your fault.
To grasp how big a problem ANTs can be, let’s consider the “Cognitive Triangle” for a moment. Our thoughts influence our feelings, our feelings influence our behavior which then influences our thoughts. Let’s focus on the thoughts piece of this triangle for a moment. Let’s take a look at the Black & White thinking where you consider yourself a failure because you are not perfect. Therefore, your negative feelings make you react or act out of that negative thought pattern. Which causes you to feel sad or depressed and you may experience self-loathing or act out to numb your feelings of being a failure. This cycle can become vicious and never ending!
So how does one stop these ANTS from shredding our thought life? Begin, by recognizing which are your “go-to” unhelpful thoughts when people disappoint your or things do not happen as you had hoped? Follow the trail of the ANT to the antidote, look at your negative thought and ask yourself, is this really true? Force yourself to apply sound reasoning to find the exception to your thinking.
In our example of black and white thinking, you could ask yourself something like this: Things aren’t either totally black or white – there are shades of grey. Where is this experience on the spectrum? You will begin to see how your old thoughts have been lying to you and have affected your feelings and behaviors. Try it and see how your ANTS have been lying to you!
Most ANTs reinforce negative emotions and create stress and anxiety in your life. Examine what beliefs/thoughts drive your stress and anxiety, then look deeper at the underlying thoughts. Are there exaggerations, emotional reasonings, critical self-assessments, or should or musts present? Begin to write out some helpful truths to counter these thoughts when you feel overwhelmed with the negative thoughts. This takes practice, so give yourself some grace in learning to recognize and battle your negative thoughts.
I hope this article will help you take the “automatic” out of your negative thought life. If you can slow down your mental processing to recognize when your thoughts are over-reacting to an event or person, you can take steps to evaluate, find the positive and begin feeling better emotionally which will lead to positive behaviors. Overall, you will hopefully experience more peace and stability in your mental space which will bring calmness and clarity to reduce stress and anxiety in your life.