Automatic negative thoughts and how to stop them
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
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
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
The 10 cognitive distortions listed below are categories of automatic negative thinking, and are to be distinguished from logical fallacies:
- All or nothing thinking, black and white with no grey areas.
- Overgeneralization – using words such as “always” or “never” i.e. “he never takes the bin out” when, in reality, he probably does — sometimes.
- Mental Filtering– out of the many positives of your presentation, you pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively.
- “Should” statements – I should have passed all my exams. Try I’d like to pass my exams, I know I’m capable.
- 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.
- Disqualifying the positive – you did well at your interview and got the job, but all you remember is the one question you stumbled over.
- 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!
- Fortune Telling – he’s going out on Friday night, I bet he’s going to cheat on me.
- Personalisation and self-blame – she’s in a bad mood, I must have upset her.
- 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
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
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
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.