Break free from 3 self-sabotaging ANTs — automatic negative thoughts

Reframing common negative patterns can help you feel more balanced.

A field of shiny round black and white frowny faces with one black and yellow smiley balloon rising above them

You’ve just been fired, and doomsday thoughts are ricocheting through your brain in a chaotic rush: you’re an idiot who can’t hold down a job. You will never be employed again. You will end up on the street without the means to support yourself.

This all-or-nothing way of thinking is a typical example of a pattern known as automatic negative thinking (ANT). Consisting of a dozen categories (many overlapping), thoughts like these force people to interpret distressing situations in an unbalanced way without examining the actual evidence. It can destroy happiness unless people learn to recognize and disarm these cognitive distortions.

Who is affected by automatic negative thoughts?

The focus of decades of research and refinement, ANTs tend to strike when we are anxious or depressed. Although most of us succumb to these cognitive distortions at least occasionally, it only becomes a problem when done chronically or to an extreme, says Jacqueline Samson, a psychologist at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital.

“They are extremely common and can all lead to a certain amount of misery,” she says. “When people get into a negative state of mind, it’s really easy to remember all the bad things someone said or did to you, and it’s hard to remember your successes.”

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Feeling stuck in extremes of thinking

The all or nothing ANT above leaves us stuck in good or bad, success or failure, with no middle ground between the two extremes. If you’ve failed, it’s because you’re completely incompetent – or so you think.

Two more common ANTs to watch:

“Should” statements: “You should be perfect, because mistakes are unacceptable.” Things “should” or “shouldn’t” be as they really are. You feel guilty when you’ve done something you “shouldn’t” and you get angry and angry at others who break the invisible “should”.

Let’s say your grandchildren didn’t send thank you notes for their holiday gifts. How dare they? You worked hard to choose their gifts. How rude she is! He will never get a gift from you again! But your answer is based on an ingrained belief that people “should” send cards. “In most cases, these kinds of ‘shoulds’ are assumptions,” says Samson. “The intensity of the response can be overwhelming.” It can even drive a wedge into relationships.

Discount positive: You may dismiss every happy development as unimportant or accidental. Positive experiences don’t count for one reason or another.

For example, your daughter calls to say that she can’t make Sunday dinner as you requested, but will visit her on Saturday night. You ignore the fact that she’s coming on Saturday and focus only on the thought that she won’t come when you wanted. “You don’t notice the ways your daughter shows she cares about you,” Samson explains.

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Why do you fall into ANT traps?

In order to process information quickly, we tend to filter it into categories and impressions based on what we already know. When we’re stressed, Samson says, it’s easier to group our interpretations into distortions. We don’t think outside the box or consider less dangerous alternatives.

These thought patterns may have started in childhood, based on behaviors modeled by family members or how we handled stressful situations without adult input. “We remove these patterns of how we think about the world and ourselves,” she says. “If you find automatic, distorted thoughts coming up again and again, they probably have their origins in other things.”

How can you escape cognitive distortions?

The first step to disarming ANTs is to take a mental step back and view your thoughts as understandable but ultimately useless. Additionally, Samson offers this advice for escaping ANTs:

  • Catch a thought. Pay attention to how you frame what is happening to you. “Whenever you use a word that’s absolute, thinking that something is ‘absolutely’ this or that, remind yourself that it can’t be,” she says.
  • Write. Sometimes seeing your thoughts on paper—which engages a different part of your brain—can encourage you to evaluate them more effectively, she says.
  • Examine the evidence for and against your thoughts. If you got fired, are you really an idiot who can’t keep a job? The facts might say otherwise: you have a college degree and have worked several jobs for a long time. “Realizing this, it’s still disappointing to be fired, but without the same downward spiral that ‘it’s over’ and things will never change,” says Samson.
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Long-standing ANTs can take time to reverse, Samson says. Be patient. “It depends on how pervasive they are and how often you catch your thoughts and restructure them,” she adds. “Many would say it’s a matter of practice, and if you’re diligent, you’ll pick it up quicker. You get to a point where you notice when you’re falling into those traps.”

And that’s the first step to getting out – or bypassing the trap altogether.

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