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Stop Automatic Negative Thoughts

Purpose: Actively discrediting automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), may decrease their frequency and intensity and improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Background

Automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are thoughts that are inaccurate or negatively biased. Well-respected psychiatrist, Daniel Amen, MD teaches his patients that thoughts often lie and if they are uninvestigated or unquestioned, they can lead to mood disorders including anxiety and depression. The Practice section below provides critical thinking tools to identify and stop ANTs as they occur. Stopping ANTs as they occur may rewire the brain to reduce the frequency and intensity of ANTs. Furthermore, by replacing ANTs with thoughts that are more accurate and honest in nature, the thought space may be filled with thoughts that are more neutral or positive.

 

Thoughts cause physical reactions to occur in the body. Some of these commonly experienced reactions include: exciting thoughts causing the heart to beat faster, fearful thoughts causing the muscles to tighten, or joyful thoughts causing the muscles to relax. Chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, or cortisol are immediately released by the brain as a thought occurs. ANTs may decrease in frequency and intensity over time as the chemical and neural pathways that are associated with them begin to shrink. In addition to stopping ANTs, please review the WavyFields topics: “Become More Present by Using the Wheel of Awareness,” “Meditate by Using EcoMeditatation,” and “Overcome Challenges with Resilience” for practices that may strengthen chemical and neural pathways that are associated with positive thoughts.

Practice: This practice may help someone to stop automatic negative thoughts.

Psychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD helps his patients discredit their automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) by having them ask themselves the following five questions:

  1. Is the thought true?

  2. Is the thought absolutely true with 100% certainty?

  3. How do I feel when I believe this thought?

  4. How would I feel if I couldn't have this thought?

  5. Could the exact opposite of the thought actually be true or even more true than the original thought?

 

The following are twelve of the most common types of ANTs with examples of how they may manifest and can be discredited. Instead of discrediting an ANT with positive thinking, Daniel Amen, MD recommends using accurate and honest thinking instead.

 

Fortune telling: Expecting a situation to turn out badly, even without having adequate evidence.

  • ANT example: “I will freeze during my presentation and the class will laugh at me.”

  • ANT replacement: “I am prepared to deliver the presentation, have note cards in case I forget what to say, and will be able to learn from any mistake that does occur.”

 

Mind reading: Interpreting the thoughts and beliefs of others without having adequate evidence of their true intention or meaning. 

  • ANT example: “My boss did not praise my performance on the project, so she must be disappointed with me.”

  • ANT replacement: “Even though my boss did not praise my performance on the project, I know that I did quality work and that we are part of the same team and striving for the same goals.”

 

If only: Believing that the present moment in time would be better if only the past had occurred differently. 

  • ANT example: “If I had not stayed in my hometown then I would have a better job.”

  • ANT replacement: “Staying in my hometown has allowed me to spend more time with family and I can find purpose and meaning in the work that I am doing.”

 

I will be happy when: Believing that a specific event is preventing happiness or that the event needs to end before happiness can return. 

  • ANT example: “Once I turn in this project I will finally be able to relax again.”

  • ANT replacement: “I can find ways to relax while working on this project, by dedicating time to playing, meditating, doing breathwork, or going for a walk.”

 

Emotional reasoning: The assumption that emotions reflect the way that things really are. 

  • ANT example: “I feel that everyone in my class dislikes me, therefore it must be true.”

  • ANT replacement: “I can ask my classmates individually if they would like to talk so that I can learn how they really feel and then take the appropriate next steps.”

 

Overgeneralization: Making broad interpretations from a single or few events. 

  • ANT example: “I burned the food, so I must be a bad cook.”

  • ANT replacement: “Though my previous attempts to cook did not turn out well, I can spend time learning cooking skills and will improve with practice.”

 

Guilt-beating: Thinking in words like “should,” “must,” or “have to.” 

  • ANT example: “I have to make my bed” or “I must wash the dishes.”

  • ANT replacement: “I get to make my bed and will appreciate this later tonight” or “I get to wash the dishes and will have clean dishes ready for tomorrow.”

 

All-or-nothing thinking: Thinking in absolutes such as “always,” “never,” or “every.” 

  • ANT example: “I am always awkward at social events” or “I will never be able to play guitar.”

  • ANT replacement: “I can improve my social skills and feel confident being myself while at social events” or “If I put in the time to practice guitar then I will improve my ability to play guitar.”

 

Less than: Believing that one person is less than another person.

  • ANT example: “He has more money, so he is probably a better person than I am.”

  • ANT replacement: “He may have more money, but I have my own qualities and while money is important to some people it is not as important to others.”

 

Disqualifying the positive: Recognizing only the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. 

  • ANT example: “I have to give up personal space so that I can host a friend at my house this weekend.”

  • ANT replacement: “Though I will be going outside of my comfort zone to share my living space, I am happy to spend more time with my friend this weekend.”

 

Labeling: Attaching a negative label to oneself or someone else.

  • ANT example: “She is a selfish person because she is always talking about herself.”

  • ANT replacement: “She does talk about herself a lot, but perhaps no one has told her how this makes them feel and she does routinely put others first with her actions.”

 

Blaming: Blaming someone or something else for one's own problems.

  • ANT example: “If I had not taken that financial advice then I would have more money today.”

  • ANT replacement: “I agreed with the financial advice after researching the investment opportunity, therefore, I take responsibility for my investment decision.

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