What are 'automatic negative thoughts' and how can we tackle them?

Of all the thoughts you have over the course of a day, how many would you say are negative?

If the estimations of the National Science Foundation are to be believed, the proportion of negative to positive thoughts could be sitting at a rather uncomfortable 80 to 20.

It’s normal to not always have a positive spin on things. But when negative thoughts greatly outweigh the neutral and optimistic ones, it can have a real impact on the way we perceive the world.

And when your brain has a tendency towards a ‘glass half full’ perspective, otherwise known as having ‘automatic negative thoughts’, the doom and gloom can start to take over.

Automatic negative thoughts are those initial, reflexive thoughts that seem to pop up from nowhere.

They can quickly become a natural state of being, and regardless of whether they’re remotely based in reality, we can let them consume our lives and emotions, making us deeply unhappy.

‘Automatic negative thoughts are pattern led and usually learned behaviours over a period of time, with themes of fear and danger common,’ Claire Gask, the clinical lead at Southampton Wellbeing Centre for the Priory Group, tells Metro.co.uk.

‘The first thing to do when looking to combat these ANTs is to identify them. As they are a reflex, it’s sometimes difficult to notice that you have automatically spiralled into a negative thought.’

Claire explains that three common types of automatic negative thoughts are:

  • The mental filter: Picking out a single negative detail and focusing only on that, without taking into account any good things that might have happened. For example, after a conversation with someone you only recall the one minor criticism and ignore the 16 good things they said.
  • Mind-reading: Making negative interpretations of what others may be thinking. ‘Everyone there thought I was stupid’
  • Over-generalisation: Seeing a negative event as a sign that everything is negative, i.e. ’I always fail’, or ‘I fail at everything I do’

‘These types are all common in someone experiencing ANTs,’ Claire tells us. ‘If you do spot yourself thinking in this way, then it’s important to recognise that, and to detach yourself from those thoughts.’

Once you notice that you’re prone to automatic negative thoughts, what’s next? How can you tackle them?

Claire shares some top tips.

Identify your automatic negative thoughts

Simply noticing when negative thoughts pop into your mind unbidden can be a powerful first step.

Get into the habit of internally noting down when ANTs happen, reminding yourself that thoughts can be fleeting and false, and you don’t need to pay any mind to the ones that don’t help you.

Challenge them

Get into a bit of healthy debate with that negative voice in your head.

‘If there is evidence to suggest a negative thought is true, it’s important to consider in an unbiased way where there might also be evidence against that thought,’ Claire says. ‘By trying to switch towards a more balanced mindsight you are more likely to stick to the facts.’

Balance them out

Try this challenge: Each time you find yourself thinking a negative thought, try thinking of a positive take on it.

‘For a week, when you identify yourself having negative thoughts write them down,’ Claire suggests. ‘This can be in a notepad you keep handy, or even on your notes on your phone.

‘Then, beside that negative thought, put the opposite positive one.’

Change the patterns

‘After a week of doing this challenge, you may start to notice a pattern of negative thinking,’ Claire tells us. ‘Sometimes it might be phrases that come up particularly often, or situations you are typically having negative thoughts towards.

‘Following on from this, come up with positive affirmations for those phrases and situations. Practice repeating those positive affirmations and allow that to lead in shifting your mindset.

‘Your mind will be taking the route of least resistance, so if it is used to reflexing towards negative thinking it will continue to do so. But once you create another neural pathway of positive thinking to explore, it will do so.’

Practice mindfulness

‘Giving yourself time to slow down, switch off and clear your mind can be hugely beneficial,’ says Claire. ‘This is particularly so if you find yourself spiralling into negative thinking.

‘The concept of mindfulness can often feel daunting but being mindful is easier than you might think.

‘The concept can be broken down into three areas; being aware of yourself, your surroundings and your emotions.

‘Focusing on your senses can calm a busy mind and allow you to feel connected to the wider world.

‘If you are new to mindfulness, free mental health app, My Possible Self, has a number of guided mindfulness sessions to help beginners ease in.’

‘The key when dealing with ANTs is to ensure that you are identifying them correctly.

‘Then once you have identified them, start to challenge them, and then use your techniques to change them in the long term.’

My Possible Self is a free NHS endorsed global mental health app. The team behind it have just launched a new The Happier Life Project podcast series available both in-app and through all major podcast platforms, including an episode discussing unhooking yourself from unhelpful thoughts.

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