Automatic negative thoughts that become overwhelmingly stressful can be overcome with simple techniques to challenge and control them.
The average human brain does a lot of thinking, up to 60,000 thoughts per day. (1)
And the majority of these thoughts are negative and seem to pop up out of the blue. (2)
Psychologists have labeled these automatic negative thoughts.
Buddha wisely said that nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts, and, for many of us, this certainly is true.
Let’s examine why human thoughts are so predominantly negative and, more importantly, how to control all those unwanted negative thoughts.
Why We Have Automatic Negative Thoughts
There are two main reasons that we have automatic negative thoughts.
First, you may be surprised to learn that having negative thoughts is perfectly normal. (3)
So right now you can stop beating yourself up for having them; they exist to keep you safe.
Your ancestors survived by constantly being on the lookout for threats, fixing problems as they arose, and then learning from their mistakes.
Imagination is one of the greatest capacities of the human mind and you use it to imagine potential threats and problems.
This enables you to solve them before you get into trouble.
But this capability to imagine threats can also work against you by turning your mind into a “random negative thought generator.”
The second reason you may have so many automatic negative thoughts is that your negative thinking has become a habit.
This is evidenced by the fact that 90% of all thoughts are repetitive — you’ll have virtually the same thoughts today that you had yesterday! (4)
If you do something often enough, including thinking negative thoughts, you create a neural pathway.
The more you do it, the stronger the connections in the brain become.
This is how habits get formed and why it’s so hard to stop a bad habit.
How Automatic Negative Thoughts Are Harmful
If automatic negative thoughts are normal and exist to keep you safe, how can they be harmful?
Negative thoughts cause chronic stress which, in many real ways, changes your brain. (5)
Every negative thought you have alters your brain chemical makeup, creating a cascade of negative effects. (6)
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The negative effects of automatic negative thinking include:
- Depleting beneficial brain chemicals like the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine
- Slowing the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein required for new brain cell formation
- Increasing your risk of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases
- Accelerating the brain’s aging process
When stress becomes chronic, it actually changes your brain down to the level of your DNA. (10)
It might feel like your negative thoughts are keeping you safe, but what they are really doing is holding you captive in a vicious cycle of stress and resulting misery.
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Why Automatic Negative Thoughts Are Called ANTS
You’ve heard of ants spoiling a picnic, but there are different kinds of “ants” that could be spoiling your life.
Dr. Aaron Beck is considered one of the founders of cognitive therapy. (11)
In the 1960s, Beck was working with patients with depression and noticed that streams of negative thoughts spontaneously popped up.
He became convinced that automatic negative thoughts like “I never do anything right” or “I’m such a loser” affected overall happiness and mental health and even caused his patients’ depression.
He noticed that their negative, distorted thinking fell into three categories: negative ideas about themselves, the world, and the future.
He called these thoughts automatic negative thoughts and gave them the memorable acronym of ANTs. (12)
Fast forward to this century.
Dr. Daniel Amen is a psychiatrist and bestselling author, who has been called the most popular psychiatrist in America.
He is frequently, but erroneously, given credit for coining the moniker ANTs.
While he didn’t create the term, he certainly did popularize it in his bestselling book Change Your Brain, Change Your Body.
9 Automatic Negative Thought Patterns to Watch Out For
Cognitive distortions are sneaky ways your mind convinces you of something that isn’t really true.
Your brain fools you into thinking that your negative thoughts are accurate and logical, but, in reality, they serve only to reinforce negative thinking and emotions.
Psychologists recognize about 20 types of cognitive distortions, give or take a few.
The number of distortions changes depending on the referenced source, but I’ve seen lists with as many as 50! (13)
Most people would be hard-pressed to learn all of them, but by elaborating on Dr. Beck’s ANTs acronym, Dr. Amen makes them easy to remember.
He labels nine of the most common automatic negative thought patterns as different “species” of ANTs and calls the most destructive ones “red ANTs.”
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He warns that a few ANTs won’t do much harm, but warns against “ANT infestations” — when thousands of negative thoughts start to dominate your thinking.
He claims that learning how to kill ANTs by developing an internal ANT-eater can be as effective as antidepressant medications to treat anxiety and depression. (14)
He’s even written a children’s book about automatic negative thoughts called Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions: Don’t Let the ANTs Steal Your Happiness.
(Captain Snout, it should come as no surprise, is an anteater.)
Here are the nine ANTS, according to Dr. Amen.
ANT #1: Black and White Thinking
Using words like “always,” “never,” and “every” is the hallmark of this ANT.
Catch yourself the next time you say to yourself “I’m never going to lose weight,” “You’re always late,” or “Everyone understands this but me.”
ANT #2: Focusing on the Negative
This ANT involves dismissing the good and focusing on the negative.
As someone once said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses.”
The source of this quote is in doubt, but the wisdom contained within is not.
ANT #3: Fortune Telling
We’re not talking about psychics who try to tell your future with a crystal ball.
(Although they may be more accurate than those prone to this common ANT.)
We’re talking about those fortune-telling folks who “know” that the worst possible outcome in any situation will occur.
If your knee-jerk reaction to a new idea is “that’s not going to work,” you may suffer from this common cognitive distortion.
ANT #4: Mind Reading
Another activity best left to the psychics is mind reading.
With this ANT, you think you know what another person is thinking.
It’s usually about you, of course, and it’s usually not good.
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ANT #5: Thinking with Your Feelings
This occurs when you have negative feelings without questioning them.
You may be in a situation where you feel stupid, for example.
It’s easy for that feeling to morph into the thought that you are stupid, though this is not true.
ANT #6: Being Ruled by “Shoulds”
Dr. Amen calls using words like should or have to “guilt beatings.”
Guilting yourself (or others) into changing is rarely productive.
ANT #7: Labeling
Eliminate negative labels like fat, lazy, stupid, or loser from your vocabulary.
Don’t label others and don’t label yourself either.
Labels can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for you and can damage your relationships with others.
ANT #8: Taking Things Personally
When others don’t treat you as well as you’d like, don’t take it personally.
This might be hard to hear if you are prone to this ANT, but the world doesn’t revolve around you.
People are not thinking about you as much as you imagine!
If a co-worker is grumpy, it’s probably because he had a bad night, is overwhelmed with work, or is worrying about something that has nothing to do with you.
ANT #9: Blame
This last one is rather straightforward.
Don’t blame others for your own problems.
Realize that you are responsible for your own actions, thoughts, and attitudes.
How to Challenge Automatic Negative Thoughts
“Don’t believe everything you think.”
— Seen on a bumper sticker
While you can’t expect to completely stop having automatic negative thoughts, you can rob them of their power by refusing to believe that they are true.
The first step to challenging your automatic negative thoughts is to recognize them when they occur.
The second step is to challenge their validity.
When you recognize an automatic negative thought, ask yourself questions like: (15)
- Is this thought true?
- Does having this thought serve me?
- Is there another explanation or another way of looking at things?
- What advice would I give someone else who had this thought?
The third step is to challenge these erroneous thought patterns.
There are several techniques to help you do this.
1. Write Down Your Automatic Negative Thoughts
Dr. Amen suggests writing down your automatic negative thoughts to help you see patterns.
You may find that certain situations or people trigger them.
You may also discover that many of your automatic negative thoughts are variations on just a few themes.
You will feel less overwhelmed if you realize you only have a handful of repeating automatic negative thoughts to master.
2. Identify Your Inner Critic
A slightly off-beat technique is to personify your “inner critic.”
This can be as simple as thinking of it as a devil on your shoulder, a Gollum-like creature, or your “evil twin.”
This helps keep you from “owning” these thoughts.
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Imagine that these thoughts come from this source outside yourself, one that does not have your best interests at heart.
If you had an acquaintance, friend, or loved one that spoke as harshly to you as you do to yourself, you would (hopefully!) drop them in a minute.
So consider this voice in your head to be a really bad friend and don’t pay attention to what it says.
And always remember that your inner critic can’t make you feel bad without your permission.
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3. Recognize That Your Negative Thoughts Are Boring
If you had a friend who came to you with the same complaint or story dozens of times a day, do you think you’d continue to pay attention to her?
You’d get bored with her stories and learn to tune her out pretty fast.
So why not do the same with your own thoughts?
The next time you have an automatic negative thought, just notice it.
Say to yourself “Ah, there’s that same old thought again.”
Roll your eyes, sigh, and say to yourself “BOR-R-R-ING.”
Recognize that not every thought you have is important, and simply let it go.
4. Turn Your ANTs into PETs
Another way to conquer ANTs is to turn them into PETs, positive empowering thoughts.
You do this by reframing your negative thoughts into something more uplifting and, ironically, probably more realistic.
You may find using an automatic negative thoughts worksheet like the one below helpful to record both your automatic thoughts and the new thoughts you will use to replace them.
5. Reframe “Should” and “Shouldn’t” Statements
Particularly useful kinds of PETs are those for reframing “should” and “shouldn’t” statements.
The next time catch yourself saying “I should” or “I shouldn’t,” swap out that statement for a more positive phrase that focuses on benefits or its alignment with your values instead.
For example, the next time you’re tempted to say “I should exercise” — which implies that you don’t exercise or don’t really want to — tell yourself a PET like this instead:
- I look forward to exercising.
- It’s important to me that I exercise.
- It’s in my best interest to exercise.
- I love the way I feel after I exercise.
These positive thoughts may not ring true initially, but eventually they will feel true as exercise becomes a new habit.
This reframing works for things you “should not” do as well.
For example, if you smoke but want to quit, instead of telling yourself “I shouldn’t smoke,” transform this statement into one of these PETs:
- I’m not the kind of person who smokes.
- I choose not to smoke.
- I feel great when I don’t smoke.
- I’m proud of myself when I don’t smoke.
Other Ways to Tame Negative Thoughts
Challenging your thoughts is the most important way to control automatic negative thoughts, but there are some techniques you can use to support this process.
Meditation excels at helping you quiet your mind and master negative thought patterns. (16)
While practicing meditation, one learns to notice and dismiss thoughts, letting them pass by with no emotional investment.
Meditation isn’t the only technique for quieting your mind.
You can get similar results with mind-body exercises like yoga, tai chi, or qi gong.
And as long as you perform it mindfully, you can turn any activity into a meditation.
It’s hard to feel overwhelmed by bad thoughts while feeling grateful.
Being grateful reduces negativity by creating a boost of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
When to Consider Professional Help for Negative Thoughts
If you feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts or feel that they are significantly impacting your life, you may want to consider professional help.
This is particularly important if you have a known mental health disorder.
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If you aren’t sure where to get help, you can find a therapist trained in CBT near you in one of these directories of mental health practitioners.
We realize that telling someone in the throes of anxiety or depression to “think positive thoughts” is no more helpful than tossing a drowning man a bicycle.
A top therapy to consider is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Unlike some forms of therapy, it doesn’t dwell on your past life experiences but deals directly with helping you recognize and control the negative thoughts you are having today.
Automatic Negative Thoughts: Take the Next Step
Your brain thinks predominantly negative thoughts for a good reason — to keep you safe.
However, these automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) can also become a bad habit that no longer serves you.
Noticing your automatic negative thoughts and employing simple techniques to challenge and control them is worth the effort.
Turning off an unending flow of negative mental chatter is one of the best things you can do for your overall happiness and mental health.
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