Automatic Negative thoughts that become overwhelmingly stressful can be overcome with simple techniques to challenge them.
The average brain does a lot of thinking, up to 60,000 thoughts per day. And the majority of these thoughts are negative and seem to pop up out of the blue. 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 is certainly true.
Lets examine why human thoughts are so prodominantly 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. 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! 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 our brain. Every negative thought you have alters your brain chemical makeup, creating a cascade of negative effects.
These negative effects 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.
Shrinking the size of your brain but enlarging your brain’s fear center, the amygdala.
Increasing your risk of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.
Accelerating the brain’s ageing process.
When stress becomes chronic, it actually changes your brain down to the level of you DNA. 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.
Nine Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)
#1 Black and White Thinking
Using words like “always, “never”, and “every” is the hallmark of ANT.
#2 Focusing On the Negative
The ANT involves dismissing the good and focusing on the negative. “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses”.
#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.
#4 Mind Reading
Another activity best left to the phychics is mind reading With this ANT , ou think you know what anther person is thinking. It’s usually about you, of course, and it’s usually not good.
#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.
#6 Words like ‘should’ or ‘have to’ are guilt beatings. Guilting yourself (or others) into changing is rarely productive.
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.
#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.
This last one is rather straightforward. Don’t blame others for your own problems. Realise that you are responsible for your own actions, thoughts, and attitudes.
How to Challenge Automatic Negative Thoughts
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 recognise them when they occur.
The second step is to challenge their validity. When you recognise an automatic negative thought, ask yourself questions like:
*Is this thought true?
*Does this thought serve me?
*Is there another explanation or another way of looking at things?
*What advice wold 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.
Write Down Your Automatic Negative Thoughts
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 realise you only have a handful of repeating automatic negative thoughts to master.
Identify Your Inner Critic
A sightly off-beat technique is to personify your “inner critic”. This can be as simple as thinking of it as a devil on your shoulder, or your “evil twin”. This helps keep you from “owning” these thoughts.
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 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.
Recognise 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. 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, ” there’s that negative old thought again”. Boring! Recognise that not every thought you have is important and simply let it go.
Other Ways to Tame Negative Thoughts
Meditation excels at hellping you quiet your mind and master negative thought patterns. While practicing meditation, one learns to notice and dismiss thoughts, letting them pass by with no emotional investment.
It’s hard to feel overwhelmed by bad thoughts while feeling grateful. Being grateful reduces negativity by creating a boos of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. Gratitude promotes mental resilience while minimising underlying negative emotions.
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