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

Better Living: How to Fight

Get control of those unhelpful thoughts that pop into your head (Image: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

Of all the thoughts you have throughout the day, how many would you consider negative?

According to estimates by the National Science Foundation, the ratio of negative to positive thoughts could be a rather uncomfortable 80 to 20.

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

And when your brain is prone to a “glass half full” perspective, also known as “automatic negative thoughts,” doom and gloom can start to take over.

Automatic negative thoughts are those initial, knee-jerk thoughts that seem to appear out of nowhere.

They can quickly become a natural state of being, and whether remotely grounded in reality, we can allow them to consume our lives and emotions, leaving us deeply unhappy.

“Automatic negative thoughts are pattern-driven behaviors, usually learned over time, with themes such as fear and danger being common,” Claire Gask, Southampton Wellbeing Center clinical director for the Priory Group, tells Metro.co.uk.

“The first thing to do when trying to combat these ants is to identify them. Because it is a reflex, it is sometimes difficult to notice that you have automatically entered a negative thought.’

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

  • The mental filter: Picking out a single negative detail and just focusing on it without considering any good things that might have happened. For example, after speaking to someone, you only remember the one small criticism and ignore the 16 good things they said.
  • Read minds: Negative interpretations of what others might think. “Everyone there thought I was stupid”
  • Overgeneralization: Taking a negative event as a sign that everything is negative i.e. “I always fail” or “I fail at everything I do”

“These guys are all common in someone experiencing ANTs,” Claire tells us. “When you find yourself thinking this way, it’s important to recognize it and detach yourself from those thoughts.”

If you find yourself prone to automatic negative thoughts, what comes next? How can you tackle them?

Claire shares some top tips.

Illustration of a woman under a rain cloud heading towards a sunny future

Walk into a more positive future (Image: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

Identify your automatic negative thoughts

Easy notice Having negative thoughts pop into your head unbidden can be a powerful first step.

Make a habit of noting mentally when ANTs occur and remind yourself that thoughts can be fleeting and wrong and you don’t have to worry about those that aren’t helping you.

Challenge them

With that negative voice in your head, engage in healthy debate.

“When there is evidence that a negative thought is true, it is important to think openly about where there might be evidence as well versus that thought,” says Claire. “If you try to move to a more balanced mindset, you’re more likely to stick to the facts.”

Balance them

Try this challenge: Every time you think a negative thought, try to think of a positive attitude about it.

“If you find yourself having negative thoughts, write them down for a week,” Claire suggests. “This could be in a notepad you keep handy, or even in your notes on your phone.

‘Then put the opposite positive thought next to this negative one.’

Change the patterns

“After doing this challenge for a week, you may notice a pattern of negative thinking,” says Claire. “Sometimes it’s phrases that come up particularly often, or situations that you normally view negatively.

“Based on that, come up with positive affirmations for those phrases and situations. Practice repeating these positive affirmations and allow it to cause you to change the way you think.

“Your mind will take the path of least resistance, so if it’s used to reflecting negative thoughts, it will continue to do so. But once you create another neural pathway of positive thinking to explore, it will.

practice mindfulness

“Taking time to slow down, switch off, and clear your head can be incredibly helpful,” says Claire. “This is especially true when you find yourself spiraling into negative thinking.

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

“The concept can be divided 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’re new to mindfulness, the free mental health app, My Possible Self, offers a series of guided mindfulness sessions to help beginners get started.”

“The key to dealing with ANTs is making sure you identify them correctly.

“Then once you’ve identified them, start challenging them and then apply your techniques to change them for the long term.”

My Possible Self is a free NHS supported global mental health app. The team behind this just launched a new podcast series The Happier Life Project, available both in app and across all major podcast platforms, including an episode about breaking free from unhelpful thoughts.

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