Do you ever feel like your brain is creating new thoughts at all times? As if the slightest movement or change will create a million new pop-ups for you to consider and try to click away. These rampant thoughts make up our day. From the most mundane like what to make for dinner or to the silliest like what if trees got haircuts. But, there is another form of thought that is nothing new to the human experience - automatic negative thoughts. Although psychiatrist Dr. Aaron Beck, who brought this concept to life, shortens these intrusive thoughts to be called ANTs. And just like the disruptive little creatures they are cutely abbreviated to, these negative thoughts like to wiggle their way into things to make our lives less fun.
To be fair, not all negative thoughts are bad. They are another part of life that serve to protect us from different threats and help us to solve issues. Yet, sometimes our brains take it a bit too far when it comes to helping us.
Have you ever noticed how wild our imaginations get when we overthink a problem or picture certain situations? We can drive ourselves mad thinking about all the risks and issues that might arise before even considering that everything could be fine. This is what these little ANTs thrive off of. They like to distort reality and put us down to make us believe that they are protecting us.
But to be honest, these negative thoughts are only doing so much. Once they get out of hand, it’s hard to see past the negativity and what really lies out there.
Do you have any bad habits? Like biting your nails or spending too much time on social media? We get chastised to quit these habits because they are not great for our overall health. Well, automatic negative thoughts are another bad habit we can be guilty of. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of making these thoughts a part of our every day, thus affecting our health. They can cause chronic stress which can alter our brain’s chemistry, such as the depletion of beneficial neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, two hormones that promote well-being and happiness. It can also slow the production of a protein that is necessary for new brain cell information. As well as a growth in the amygdala, the brain’s fear section and an acceleration in the brain’s aging process. Not only does it affect your brain, but negative thoughts can impact your everyday life with stress and fear keeping you from living your life comfortably.
I don’t know about you, but this does not seem like a fair trade. Dr. Beck also felt the same. He recognized in his patients with depression the random cycles of negative thoughts they were having making a drastic impact on their happiness. Beck put together the three main categories these negative thoughts fall into - negative thoughts about the world, themselves, and the future.
To make matters trickier, our brains can interrupt these negative thoughts as facts, even if they are far from it. Just like our brains can convince us something is not real, they can make us truly believe that other things are. This is referred to as our cognitive bias, and trust me, there are plenty of them (as many as 200 biases). Yet, Psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Amen has taken the time to break down these ANTs into nine of the most common patterns.
A little daunting, I know. I even recognized a lot of the ANTs that wiggle around in my mind from this list. However, there are ways to start facing these ANTs and making them less of a spotlight in your mind!
You may have already started! By reading through these different ANTs, you probably noticed the ones you might have. This is the first step! By recognizing which ones seem to be the most common for you, you can start working to understand and shift these thoughts. This brings us to the next tip. By catching and writing down your negative thoughts, you can practice rewriting them into more positive thoughts. This can help break the habit of having negative thoughts be the only ones out there. Ask these thoughts questions and interrogate their believability. Sometimes these thoughts just pass by like normal, but take a moment to see what they are really about. You might spot some fake reality ones that don’t serve you at all!
You may even want to pretend these thoughts are coming from something else. Instead of feeling weighed down by the negative thoughts you tell yourself, pretend they are coming from a monster or a critic who only wants to heckle you and make life harder. This way you can see these thoughts as unhelpful whisperings from the creature pestering you. Plus you can imagine defeating these unruly negative beasts from pushing you down!
Embrace your inner eye-rolls by looking at each of the repetitive negative thoughts as soooo boring. I mean they can’t come up with anything better than wanting to put you down, so unoriginal. This is a fun way to play off the not-so-great thoughts as ones that are trying too hard to be something when honestly, they are nothing. So take those thoughts and toss them right over your shoulder, and for good measure, do a sassy hair flip as you walk off.
Lastly, replace those "should" and "shouldn't." There are so many more productive words to use in place of those guilt-driven ones. You can justly rationalize these thoughts instead of making them an all-or-nothing statement. Such as, I should be productive. How about we reframe that to why you want to be productive or how being productive matters to you? Being productive makes me feel good and accomplished. I want to get these things done to get them off my plate. I got a lot of stuff done earlier, so I can relax for a bit. By reframing these "shoulds" and "shouldn’ts" your thoughts can feel more rationalized and personalized to you.
I know it seems like a lot, especially when negative thoughts can just stick in your mind like an ant infestation. But with enough care and mindfulness, these negative thoughts won’t feel so overwhelming.
Just remember that these thoughts don’t define who you are. Take this as a chance to embrace the real you instead of the you these thoughts make you feel bad or guilty about! It’s all about taking care of you because in the end loving yourself is the greatest gift you can ever have!
And for worksheets and lessons on negative thoughts and other types of negative thinking from Therapist Aid, check out the links below!
To read more, please visit Be Brain Fit's article on Automatic Negative Thoughts.