How many automatic negative thoughts popped into your head today?
You know, the ones that seem to come from nowhere. You’re minding your own business, and all of a sudden, you think, “I’m a failure.”
“I should have been more productive this week.”
“I’ll never make it.”
You probably wouldn’t listen to someone who popped up behind you and said these things. But every day, people let these automatic negative thoughts dictate their decisions, moods, and life. The longer you let automatic negative thoughts control your thought process, the harder it will be to take back control and start living with a positive outlook.
So let’s break down the definition of automatic negative thoughts, why they pop up, and how you can turn them into more optimistic thoughts, facts, and plans.
What Are Automatic Negative Thoughts?
Automatic negative thoughts are pretty self-explanatory. They are negative thoughts that seem to pop into your mind without conscious effort. The acronym ANTs is really appropriate, because automatic negative thoughts are invasive, unwanted, and can ruin your picnic.
People experiencing anxiety and depression are more likely to experience automatic negative thoughts. These thoughts may sound different for each person.
An anxious person may have ANTs concerning the future. They might tell themselves:
- “People are going to laugh at me.”
- “I’m going to get rejected.”
- “I’m going to embarrass myself.”
These thoughts, often set in the future, reference events that haven’t happened yet. Although the person does not know the outcome of their situation, their ANTs tell them that things aren’t going to go well. These thoughts often have no basis in reality or logic. Yet, a person who listens to these ANTs may avoid social situations, hold back, or live in fear.
Not all ANTs think they can predict the future. A lot of automatic negative thoughts focus on the self and the decisions that were made in the past. Some of these ANTs may say,
- “I’m not a good person.”
- “I don’t deserve happiness.”
- “Everyone is out to get me.”
- “It’s my fault that things have gotten so bad.”
These thoughts may make you feel helpless, exhausted, or just plan crummy about yourself.
Where Do Automatic Negative Thoughts Come From?
ANTs aren’t very productive. They don’t make you feel good. They really don’t have any benefit. So why do they keep popping up in your brain?
Like the thoughts themselves, the answer may vary. Humans are meaning-making creatures. We try to search for answers. Sometimes, it’s easiest to “get an answer” by blaming ourselves. Or by blaming others. It might be “easier” to hold the weight of guilt rather than try to put it on another person or a larger history that may have contributed to misfortunes.
Our minds also want a quick solution or answer. It may be easier to “tell the future” than to wait patiently for the future to arrive. It’s quicker to write yourself off as a bad person, rather than accept that you, like the people around you, are imperfect. You may make bad choices, but you can learn and grow from them. This process, however, takes time.
Unfortunately, ANTs will always appear. There is no magic pill that will make them go away. Fortunately, there are ways to reframe ANTs and replace them with more positive thoughts.
Reframing and Replacing ANTs
The first step to replacing ANTs with more positive thoughts is to acknowledge that you experience automatic negative thoughts. Congrats! You’re well on your way.
Do you know exactly what ANTs keep popping up in your mind? It’s okay if the answer is no. Take some time to be mindful of your thoughts. Be aware of what ANTs keep appearing and when they keep appearing. Write them down if you have to - but make sure to make connections between ANTs and situations when you get scared, anxious, or depressed.
For example, you might start to hear ANTs in your head when your crush or your friends don’t text you back. Don’t ignore ANTs that pop up for seemingly silly or insignificant reasons. Accept that you have ANTs, and that certain situations make them appear in your mind.
Once you have a grasp on when you experience automatic negative thoughts, take a look at them. Are these ANTs facts? Most likely, they’re not. They are poor predictions of the future or a rather harsh opinion of yourself. Maybe they are a reflection of one failure that you experienced in the past. A rejection from 10 years ago. A mean comment that one person told you.
Break these ANTs down. Then, find a way to reframe them or replace them with something positive. The next time this ANT pops into your head, you can “answer it” with something positive and productive.
Let’s say you keep telling yourself, “I’m a failure.” How can we break this down and replace it with something positive?
Maybe this ANT is based on your personal history. In the past, you have tried and failed. But do these handful of failures define you as a person? Does a previous failure make someone a complete failure? When you look at world leaders, top athletes, and successful entrepreneurs, don’t you also see a history of failures and setbacks?
It is a fact that you have failed in the past. It is an opinion that you are (or are not) a failure.
So let’s reframe this ANT.
“I have failed in the past, but these failures don't define me. If I make a mistake or come up short in the future, I will always get up, brush myself off, and try again. This determination and passion is rooted in my character and will keep moving me forward.”
That’s a much nicer thought, isn’t it? If you tell yourself this every time the ANT comes around, eventually the ANT will stop popping up. You will have replaced it with a more optimistic and factual thought.
Remember, this process starts with mindfulness and the acknowledgment of ANTs. Sure, ANTs often sound silly and embarrassing when you write them down or repeat them out loud. But they’re powerful. So take control of these ANTs. Reframe them, put yourself in a better light, and enjoy a picnic without any nasty bugs.