How to stop Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)

Automatic negative thoughts and how to stop them

Stop the Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) dancing around your brain — Image by Pixabay

Do you get lots of automatic negative thoughts, just popping into your head, and don’t know how to stop them?

I know I get them. More so just recently because, like lots of others, I’ve been unable to get my hair done, I’m a deathly white due to the lack of sunlight, and I’ve put on weight.

Okay, that might be because I’ve stopped smoking, for over three months now, and I’m snacking more. Anyway, I digress….. the ANTs….. they seemingly come from nowhere.

I was busy making chocolate lollipops for our grandchildren, which always makes me happy……….. when lo and behold “I look so damn ugly,” the ANTs screamed, and “I feel like a right old state.” Followed by “That’s it fatty! Yes, you! You need to lose some weight,” as I licked yet another chocolate covered spoon.

On and on with the ANTs, ffs! Stop!!

After reading my previous post How to support young people with mental health problems, you might find this post helpful too. These tips will be useful for both adults and young people.

ANTs and cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions can cause emotional distress
Cognitive distortions can cause emotional distress — Image by Shemazing

Unfortunately, during this damn lockdown, once again I’m having lots of ANTs and I’m making horrible thinking errors. These are known as cognitive distortions ((processing information inaccurately), which skew our perceptions of reality.

Cognitive distortions tend to occur when we experience distressing events in our lives — an argument with our partner, a disagreement with our colleagues, poor test results — and we think about it in a way that reinforces negativity and feeling bad.

These ANTs assault us involuntarily, thudding around our brains, going in circles and eventually become more destructive and unhelpful. We start to feel distressing emotions and these prevent us from doing things we need/want/wish to do.

Now the procrastinating gives us even more time to consider all the ANTs, which help to confirm them……………… on and on, and on…… Aaarrghhhh! Stop this vicious circle!

They’re negative interpretations of situations based on poor assumptions i.e. I feel awful so I must look awful! They’re exaggerated or irrational thoughts that cause us to perceive reality inaccurately. It feels like they’ll never stop…..

I think “there’s no way I’m popping out to the shops looking like this.” So……… I stay in and isolate myself from my local community, those who’ll judge me negatively because of my hair, my weight or ……….

Cognitive distortions can lead to mental health problems

Fortune telling is a cognitive distortion
Fortune telling can be a cognitive distortion

Here’s the thing, we all blow things out of proportion or jump to conclusions at times, but constantly distorting becomes problematic.  For me, and many others, these cognitive distortions can cause intense emotional distress.

Studies show self-defeating thoughts like “I look disgusting” can trigger self-defeating emotions like low mood. This, in turn, causes self-defeating actions such as isolating, hiding, avoiding. Left unchecked, this habit can also lead to more severe conditions, such as depression and anxiety, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Some common cognitive distortions

Self-labelling is one of the common cognitive distortions
Self-labelling is one of the common cognitive distortions

The 10  cognitive distortions listed below are categories of automatic negative thinking, and are to be distinguished from logical fallacies:

  1. All or nothing thinking, black and white with no grey areas.
  2. Overgeneralization – using words such as “always” or “never” i.e. “he never takes the bin out” when, in reality, he probably does — sometimes.
  3. Mental Filtering– out of the many positives of your presentation, you pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively.
  4. “Should” statementsI should have passed all my exams. Try I’d like to pass my exams, I know I’m capable.
  5. Mind Reading – Like, I know they’re only being polite, telling me I look good today. Try thinking Perhaps they like my new suit and think I do look okay.
  6. Disqualifying the positive – you did well at your interview and got the job, but all you remember is the one question you stumbled over.
  7. Emotional Reasoning I feel sh*t so I must be. Or I feel bad, therefore I am. Confusing feelings with facts. Feelings are not facts!
  8. Fortune Tellinghe’s going out on Friday night, I bet he’s going to cheat on me.
  9. Personalisation and self-blameshe’s in a bad mood, I must have upset her.
  10. Self-labelling – calling yourself “a fool” or “a failure” or “a jerk.”

For a more comprehensive list of cognitive distortions and definitions, check out these 10 thinking errors.

Fortunately, in a few steps, we can learn how to stop these negative distortions. It’s time to ditch the idea of positive thinking and introduce the tool of accurate thinking.

Some simple steps to conquer your ANTs

ANTs in Depression and Anxiety
ANTs in Depression and Anxiety — Image by Manchesteranxietyhelp.co.uk

Psych Central wrote that cognitive distortions — also known as “stinkin’ thinkin’” — can be undone, but it takes effort and lots of practice, every day.

If you want to stop the irrational thinking, you can start by trying out the exercises below.

 Try this method developed by GoZen! called the 3Cs:

  • Check for common cognitive distortions. You might find you’ve developed a particular pattern i.e. when your partner starts going out with friends every Friday, you might notice your constant fortune-telling “he’s going to cheat”.

You might also find yourself consistently thinking in black and white — there’s no grey bit for you. “He mustn’t fancy me any more,” and “he wants to be with someone else” when really, he just wants to wind down with his pals after a tough week at work.

  • Collect evidence to paint an accurate picture. As far as you’re aware, he’s never cheated before. You know where he’s going and who with. You could try asking your partner if everything’s okay between you, or ask can you go too as you’re feeling a bit left out. He might think you wouldn’t enjoy a lads night out. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.
  • Challenge the original thoughts. Now you’ve checked for the accuracy of your original negative thoughts that he wants someone else — he doesn’t want to cheat and he’s explained his nights out are just to let off steam………….. He’s said you’re welcome to join them but you know it will all just be about football and rugby.

Having done the above exercise, and with all your evidence, you’re now able to dispute your original negative and distorted thoughts. You’ll note that this type of self-disputation increases accurate thinking and improves emotional well-being.

Self-study with books

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Techniques in books can be helpful
CBT techniques in books can be helpful

There are many books about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques that are definitely very effective support tools. However, not all of these books are useful so it is necessary to be very careful in selecting a book. I am happy to offer up some of my favourite CBT books, those that I’ve found useful both personally and professionally with patients.

Younger people might need some support in using the CBT techniques either from yourself or a qualified professional.

Computer assisted cognitive behavioural therapy

Applications are becoming increasingly widespread in recent years. Computer games designed for young people and children are also effective. These programmes include cognitive behavioural therapy techniques. See my Resources page here.

Over to you

Any questions? Image by Clipart.com

Do you get unwanted ANTs at times? Are you able to challenge them or stop them? What helps you with your ANTs and do you have any tips for readers? I look forward to reading your thoughts, and I’m always happy to answer any questions. In the meantime, I hope you’re staying safe and well, despite the lockdown.

Caz 🙂

Author: mentalhealth360.uk

Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

29 thoughts on “How to stop Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs)”

    1. Yes, there’s lots of stuff out there. People just have to learn how to use them effectively, and practice (often). There’s no good just reading how to help yourself, you need to work at it – as you already know 😉

  1. I have self esteem issues,no doubt,and unhealthy personality quirks. But so much depends on if I am in a depression or panicked. I can tell myself my brain is lying to me but believing it…not so easy.

    When my mind goes dark and hurls evil insults at me,I like to picture a stop sign. STOP the negative thinking. Serenity Tranquility Offer Peace. And counting backwards helps distract me and ride it out. Sporadic success but it is something.

    1. I completely understand Morgs, it’s not easy. It takes lots of practice and I can understand how easy it is to give up.

      Yep, I do the STOP thingy and I do mindfulness – again not always easy to continue when the thoughts are hurtling at you – but it’s best to try something, than not 🙂

  2. I’ve found, over the years, that a combination of journaling, idea writing, Tai Chi and seated meditation has helped, but it has taken me alot of work.
    Stay safe,
    -Shira Dest.

    1. Me too with the journaling, Tai Chi and massage. I trained in many forms of massage and (until my hands became arthritic) I used to get a lot of pleasure from giving massages to family and friends. I had the table, the chair and the aromatherapy oils. I do miss it all.

      I agree, it takes a lot of work. But as I say to peeps often “you wouldn’t be able to learn a language or drive a care safely if you didn’t learn how to an practice often 🙂

      You too Shira, all the best – Caz 🙂

  3. Hi there!! How’re you? 🙂

    I could relate the most to #9 about personalization and self-blame, and that one’s a hurdle for me, for sure!! I’m lucky to have my dad onhand for all of the examples, though, because I’m always thinking wrong, and he always has to set me straight. Like, if someone’s mean to me, he’ll bend over backward to explain to me–again and again–what was probably going through the person’s mind, and it had nothing to do with me–just wrong place, wrong time, or whatever. I’d be lost without his constant explainings to me. I think probably my worst incorrect thoughts are paranoia-based, which would explain #9, like, “He’s out to get me! How dare he!” but it’s not personal. The person’s either a jerkface to everyone, OR he’s having a bad day. And then my dad will go farther and explain the political ramifications of things, like, “He yelled at you for being inside due to fear of the coronavirus,” (while I was wearing a mask, for crying out loud). And his explanations always make sense, but I keep having the same issues again and again because my brain’s wired a certain way, apparently, and that’s frustrating as all get-out, but it is what it is. Huh. I’ve never thought of myself as having cognitive issues, but that’s because I associate them with depression (which makes sense, as it’s probably rather common), but it occurs to me that I could read some CBT self-help books and try to tackle the paranoid beliefs. Great blog post, and very informative!! 🙂

    1. Hey my lovely, nice to hear from you. I’m on the mend and certainly feeling lighter in mood, despite the pain 🙂

      Yes, we all tend to lean towards one or two of the examples. It’s absolutely fantastic that you have your dad there to help ‘correct’ or clarify your (and others) thoughts.

      I think we have to remember that too, that not everyone’s out to get us. You know they’ve probably had a crap day and need someone to take it out on lol. We’re so good at noticing how other’s hurt us but we tend not to notice what’s hurting them. I try to take a step back and take a few deep breaths, literally, to calm myself down before I respond or retaliate. I’m quite good at saying to peeps “did you mean to hurt/offend me there?” This gives them the chance to ‘sound off’ too.

      Hey, don’t worry, everyone has ‘faulty thinking’ at times, it’s just some of us have them more than others. I have had to learn not to snap at people and calm myself down.

      There’s a great book (kindle and paperback) by Dr Burns’ (Ashley also mentioned his book) Feeling Good Handbook. It’s so easy to read, learn and has lots of practical advice and exercises. But you must practice them. Like I often say, you couldn’t just read about on driving and expect to be on the motorway immediately. You have to learn how to drive and then practice lol.

      You stay safe and well Meg, and so lovely hearing from you x

      1. Thank you so much!! I’ll definitely look into getting some CBT books posthaste!! I’m glad you’re back, and please drop me a line anytime!! I hope you feel better soon with the pain!! AAUGH!! 🙂 Keep up the great blogging!!

      2. Let me know if you need help/support with the books or any of the CBT exercises Meg.
        Thank you for the offer, I appreciate it.

        Also thank you for your kind words 🙂 x

  4. Arrgghh squash those ANTS! You’re right about that vicious circle and the things, like disqualifying the positives, that can propagate the ants and continue the cycle. You’ve really clearly gone through what these automatic negative thoughts are and how to challenge them. It’s an ongoing work-in-progress but it’s doable to get a breather from them, face them head on, and start turning them around. xx

    1. Most of us ‘commit a few of these sins’ and we tend to have a pattern of using particular ones. We need to catch them and write them down – I think seeing them on paper makes it easier to challenge and change them. Cos it’s no easy task, particularly if we’ve been following the same pattern for years 🙁

  5. I really like those 3 C’s! I also think the amount of effort and practice it takes to get ride of ANT’s is what’s so discouraging for me. Like you said, having a negative thought while you’re doing every day tasks (or even nothing at all) is very frustrating, and cognitive distortions can even make you think you’re not getting better at this practice. But I really enjoyed the way you presented this info, it’s given me the kick in the pants I needed 😃

    1. Lol. Do you know what, whenever I used to teach this with patients or when I write about it, it reminds me that I need to be more aware of my own cognitive distortions and to challenge them!

      We all need that little kick sometimes 😉

  6. Those 3Cs sound great! Even when we recognize on some level that ANTs are a distortion, their constant repetition can make them sound more and more like truth. That “should” is one of the worst. It’s no nicer to should on ourselves than to should on others!

    1. Lol, I like the way you put that. I always find that writing down the ANTs makes it easier to recognise our own pattern of distortions, challenge them and change them. It’s no easy task, I know ❤️

  7. I used to have that problem A LOT but have gotten a lot better. Identifying the pattern and isolating it has helped and just working on self-esteem… I still get them sometimes though. Maybe everyone gets them from time to time. 😕

  8. I think you’re right JoAnn, we all get them from time to time, and that’s okay. It’s only when it happens regularly and it upsets you, that it becomes an issue. Best wishes to you my lovely.

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