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Automatic Negative Thinking: How to Overcome Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) - with Examples

Our minds often replay the same negative thoughts over and over again. It’s the narrative of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs), those persistent thoughts that distort reality and color our perceptions.


Automatic Negative Thinking is rooted in fear and self-doubt. It can wield immense power, shaping our emotions, behaviors - and ultimately - our lives.


In this article, I'll discuss how ANTs work and share ways to change them to improve your life.


What is Automatic Negative Thinking?


Automatic negative thinking refers to patterns of thought that are immediately triggered in certain situations, often without conscious awareness. These thoughts can be distorted and negative, influencing our emotions and behaviors.


Examples of Automatic Negative Thinking (ANTs)


There are quite a lot of examples out there that fall into 8 categories, so I put them into an infographic to give you a more palatable overview:


automatic negative thinking infographic

Here's a helpful PDF version if you'd prefer to share or download the above infographic:


ANTs infographic
.pdf
Download PDF • 555KB

Now that that's taken care of, let's look into each of these categories and examples more deeply.


 

1. Catastrophizing


This involves imagining the worst possible outcome of a situation.

These examples illustrate how catastrophizing can lead to exaggerated and distressing thoughts about the potential consequences of various situations:


Traffic Jam Catastrophizing

Someone hits traffic on the way to an important appointment and immediately thinks, "I'll never make it on time, and my entire presentation will flop. I'll ruin my career!"


Missed Deadline Catastrophizing

Upon realizing they missed a deadline at work, a person might catastrophize by thinking, "I'm going to get fired for sure. This one mistake will overshadow all the good work I've done."


Relationship Conflict Catastrophizing

After an argument with their partner, someone might catastrophize by thinking, "This is the end of our relationship. We'll never be able to resolve our differences, and I'll end up alone."


Health Concern Catastrophizing

Upon experiencing a mild symptom, someone might catastrophize by thinking, "I must have a serious illness. I'm probably dying, and my life will be cut short."


Financial Trouble Catastrophizing

Facing a minor setback in their finances, someone might catastrophize by thinking, "I'll never be able to recover from this. I'll end up homeless and destitute."


2. Overgeneralization


This involves taking one negative experience and applying it to all similar situations. These examples demonstrate how overgeneralization can lead to sweeping, negative conclusions based on isolated incidents.


Academic Failure Overgeneralization

After receiving a low grade on one exam, a student might think, "I'm terrible at this subject. I'll never succeed in school."


Social Rejection Overgeneralization

If someone doesn't receive an invitation to a social event, they might think, "Nobody likes me. I'll always be alone."


Career Setback Overgeneralization

After not getting a job offer following an interview, a person might think, "I'm unemployable. I'll never find a job in this field. Everyone is better than me."


Relationship Struggle Overgeneralization

If a romantic relationship ends, someone might think, "I'll never find love again. I'm destined to be alone forever."


Physical Appearance Overgeneralization

After being criticized for their appearance, someone might think, "I'm ugly and undesirable. Nobody will ever find me attractive."


3. Black-and-White Thinking


Black-and-white thinking, also known as "all-or-nothing" thinking, involves viewing situations or oneself in extremes, without considering any middle ground or shades of gray. It can lead to unrealistic standards and harsh self-criticism.

Here are some examples of black-and-white thinking with automatic thoughts:


Perfectionism

  • "If I don't get an A on this project, I'm a complete failure."

  • "If I can't finish this report flawlessly, it's not even worth doing."


Relationships

"If my partner doesn't agree with me, they must not love me at all."


Success

"If I'm not the best at something, then I'm a total loser."


Appearance

"If I don't look perfect, then I must be ugly."


Moral Judgments

"If I make one mistake, I'm a bad person."


4. Personalization


This involves taking responsibility for things that are outside of one's control, blaming oneself excessively, and attributing external events or others' behaviors to oneself, even when there's no evidence to support such a connection. These automatic thoughts can lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and self-blame. Here are some examples:


Blaming Oneself for Others' Actions

"My friend canceled our plans; it must be because I did something wrong."


Assuming Responsibility for Negative Outcomes

"The project didn't go well; it's all my fault. I should have done better."


Feeling Guilty for Others' Feelings

"My partner seems upset; I must have said something to hurt them."


Taking Criticism Personally

"My colleague didn't like my idea; they must think I'm incompetent."


Attributing Negative Events to Personal Characteristics

"I wasn't invited to the party; nobody likes me."


Assuming Negative Attention is Directed at Oneself

"People are whispering; they must be talking about me and my mistakes."


Feeling Responsible for Others' Happiness

"My family seems unhappy; I must not be doing enough to make them happy."


5. Mind Reading


These examples illustrate how "Mind Reading" involves making assumptions about what others are thinking or feeling without any concrete evidence, often leading to feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, or anxiety.


Assuming Negative Judgments

  • "They didn't respond to my message; they must think I'm annoying or boring."

  • "They canceled our plans. They must not like hanging around me."


Interpreting Silence as Disapproval

"My boss didn't say anything after my presentation; they must be disappointed in me."


Believing Others Are Criticizing You

"I overheard my coworkers whispering; they must be talking about how incompetent I am."


Attributing Motives to Others' Actions

"She didn't invite me to the party; she must not like me."


Assuming Rejection Before It Happens

"I haven't heard back from the job interview; they must have already decided not to hire me."


Believing You Know Others' Thoughts

"He's looking at me strangely; he must be judging me."


Interpreting Neutral Behaviors Negatively

"She didn't smile when she saw me; she must be upset with me."


6. Labeling


This involves attaching a negative label to oneself or others based on a single behavior or event.


For example, if someone makes a mistake at work, they might label themselves as "incompetent."


7. Emotional Reasoning


This involves believing that because one feels a certain way, it must be true.


For instance, if someone feels anxious in a social situation, they might think, "I must be in danger."


8. Should Statements


This involves imposing unrealistic expectations on oneself or others. For example, saying "I should always be happy" can lead to feelings of guilt or inadequacy when that's not possible.


These are just a few examples of automatic negative thinking patterns that can contribute to distress and impact mental well-being. Recognizing these patterns is the first step toward challenging and changing them.


Understanding the Nervous System's Role in Automatic Negative Thinking


To comprehend the impact of automatic negative thinking, it's important to look into the inner workings of our nervous system. The human brain is wired for survival; equipped with an intricate network that processes incoming stimuli and generates responses.


When faced with perceived threats, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, triggering the infamous "fight, flight, or freeze" response.


Automatic Negative Thoughts are believed to be manifestations of this survival mechanism gone awry - remnants of evolutionary adaptations designed to protect us from danger.


However, in modern times, where physical threats are less prevalent, these thoughts often misfire, perceiving everyday stressors as imminent hazards.


The Problem with Automatic Negative Thoughts


The insidious nature of ANTs lies in their ability to deceive us. They masquerade as truths, hijacking our cognitive processes and distorting our perceptions - and in some cases - destroying relationships, livelihood, and more.


Whether it's catastrophizing the future, magnifying failures, or engaging in self-criticism, these thoughts create a distorted lens through which we view ourselves and the world.


Moreover, ANTs feed off of repetition. Like a well-worn path in the woods, the more we entertain these thoughts, the deeper they embed themselves into our psyche. Over time, they become ingrained patterns of thinking, dictating our beliefs, emotions, and actions.


If you want to bring peace to the world, make your own life peaceful.

Reprogramming the Mind: Steps to Liberation from Automatic Thoughts


Breaking free from the grip of automatic negative thoughts requires conscious effort and perseverance. Here are some steps to reprogram the mind and reclaim control.


Awareness


The initial step in dealing with ANTs is acknowledging them when they arise. Mindfulness techniques like meditation, journaling, and self-awareness—observing our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors—can help us become more aware of these patterns.


At times, it can be challenging to kickstart self-awareness, but having a reliable friend to impartially highlight your responses or reactions that might be linked to ANTs can aid in boosting self-awareness.


Challenge


Once identified, challenge the validity of automatic negative thoughts. Question their basis in reality and seek evidence to counteract their assertions. Are these thoughts founded on facts, or are they distorted perceptions related to fears or past traumas?


Ask yourself: "Is it possible that those thoughts are not valid or even not my own?" The answers to those two questions are always "yes," making this practice an empowering one in terms of letting go.


Replace


Intentionally replace ANTs with more realistic and constructive thoughts every time you realize you are having them. Affirmations, positive self-talk, and reframing techniques can help shift perspectives, cultivate a more optimistic mindset, and, over time, reprogram old narratives.


Behavioral Activation


Engage in activities that promote positive emotions and distract from negative rumination. Exercise, hobbies, and social interactions can serve as antidotes to the corrosive effects of ANTs.


Seek Support


Don't navigate this journey alone - you don't have to do it alone or be embarrassed. This is a phenomenon that is pervasive throughout our culture. Reach out to friends, family, or professional counselors for guidance and support. Sharing experiences and perspectives can provide invaluable insights and encouragement and accelerate the process of reprogramming and healing.


Final Thoughts on Freeing Your Mind


Automatic Negative Thinking is a formidable adversary, capable of exerting profound influence over our lives. However, armed with awareness and the right tools, we can challenge its authority and break free from its grasp.


By reprogramming our minds out of automatic negative thoughts and cultivating a more positive outlook, we can embark on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment.


It's time to rewrite the script and reclaim control of our narrative for the welfare and betterment of everyone.


Need help navigating Automatic Negative Thinking? I'm an experienced professional who can help you remotely or in person. Book a session here.



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